Nicholas Noe - Beirut
Over the last decade and a half, Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary general of Lebanon's militant Shiite movement Hezbollah, has steadily moved front and center in the often vitriolic (and regularly under-informed) Western debate over the threat that 'radical Islam' is said to pose to the world at large.
Now, as Nasrallah appears ready to lead what could be a new majority in the Lebanese Parliament, the steady stream of accusations and threats have, somewhat predictably, turned into a deluge – with Arab states, Arab media and prosecutorial offices far and wide at the forefront of efforts to paint him as public enemy Number One.
A central reason for all the attention in the past, of course, has been that Nasrallah and Hezbollah have managed – for better or worse, depending on your perspective – to inflict a series of increasingly significant setbacks for US and especially Israeli interests: the ignominious, unilateral withdrawal from South Lebanon by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in May 2000, the failure of the Bush administration to vanquish Hezbollah and Syria in one go following the 2005 assassination of Lebanese Premier Rafik Hariri, and, of course, the July 2006 war – vigorously encouraged by the Americans and lost by the Israelis.
But Nasrallah has also become an object of particular focus and concern because, unlike many other Islamists, he has successfully staked a great deal of his power and prestige on a sustained appeal to reason in the all important battle for “hearts and minds.”
Indeed, when Lebanese go to the polls shortly, they may very well choose a coalition led by Hezbollah and its Christian allies in the Free Patriotic Movement to lead the country forward, instead of the parties who have defined themselves as pro-American “moderates.”
For many policymakers and opinionshapers, especially the neoconservatives, this aspect has been particularly maddening since few have wanted to – or understood how one might - spend the time and capital to address Nasrallah’s rationality head on, preferring instead to characterize him as driven in word and deed by unreason, totalitarianism and perpetual violence.
The unfortunate irony is that just as the Obama administration and much of Europe appears ready to dispense with such simplistic and ultimately unhelpful thinking, Nasrallah seems to be descending further along the axis of unreason.
Sadder still is that while an alternative approach – leveraging his heavy reliance on reason to peacefully contain all that is in fact unreasonable and violent about the Party of God – remains available to Nasrallah’s opponents, the window is closing fast.
With the consolidation of a decidedly right wing majority within the Israel body politic, and the prospects of a Hezbollah-led majority government after the June Parliamentary elections, a de facto and de jure structure of hatred is cresting along the borderline that separates two, formidable adversaries – both of which would like very much to finish the other off in one last “open war.”
The Spider Web
Shortly after the fall of Saddam Hussein in the Spring of 2003, Nasrallah struck on a theme he had often employed in analyzing events in the region and in Lebanon: the danger of relying on pure force.
“We should all learn a lesson,” he told an audience of party supporters and cadres, “and so should the regimes in power in the Arab and Islamic countries. The lesson to be learned [from the US-led invasion of Iraq] is that the army and security services can protect any oppressive regime, but the army and security services of any oppressive regime will not be able to protect it if confronted by a stronger military force.
“What can really protect a regime,” he stressed, “are its own people and its own citizens, if they are well treated by it; if it oppresses them, none of its rallying speeches will do it any good.”
By the time Baghdad fell, of course, Hezbollah had already co-existed for some time with the specter of its own demise as a militant movement, repeatedly fending off various efforts in post Civil War Lebanon to end its ability to exercise violence.
The “artful balance,” as this operation was dubbed by one analyst, stood on two legs masterfully joined and maintained by Nasrallah over time: reason – insofar as Hezbollah avidly encouraged critical, independent thinking among supporters at all levels, pursued a path of political pragmatism and openness domestically and occasionally brought to bear well-considered force against Israeli violations of Lebanon’s sovereignty – and unreason, since the whole enterprise was built on the backstop of a Syrian hegemony that, even by Nasrallah’s own definition, contained essential aspects of oppressiveness.
There were, certainly, other elements of unreason in Nasrallah’s speeches, interviews and actions during (and after) the period of Syrian suzerainty that ended abruptly in 2005 – not least of which were those focused on by Western critics where he expressed anti-Jewish sentiments, denied the extent of the Holocaust and hoped that Ayatollah Rulloh Khomeini’s fatwa against the author Salmon Rushdie would be fulfilled.
But the key element working against Nasrallah’s support in the wider Lebanese community – something that would become especially crucial after Syria was forced to leave – was his willingness to sacrifice the reason he applied so deftly in other domains when it came to all things Syria.
Ironically, although Nasrallah later implied that such deference was a necessary evil in order to protect what he considered to be Lebanon’s security, it almost proved to be the end of Hezbollah’s independent weaponry.
In March 2000, just as Syria and Israel seemed ready to conclude a peace agreement, Nasrallah placidly told Egypt’s official daily, Al-Ahram, that, “as for Israel, we will join with other elements opposed to normalization… [However] we are aware of the international efforts to obtain a settlement in the region… We are convinced that the signing of a peace agreement will be a victory for the resistance and the rationale of resistance.”
The impending “victory” was, certainly, not what Nasrallah had hoped for. But with 30,000 Syrian troops and intelligence agents in Lebanon, and a series of stern public warnings by Damascus that any Syrian-Israeli peace would obligate Lebanon and Hezbollah, Nasrallah had little choice but to comply. Syria held a preponderance of power, and Nasrallah had built up a movement and a constituency that operated on the complex interchange between faith and logic – long-term aspiration and immediate interest - not mere suicide (even if such tactics were occasionally, and carefully, brought to bear in the battle against the Israelis).
Only a few weeks after Nasrallah’s interview though, the “Syria Track” collapsed.
US President Bill Clinton lied to Syrian President Hafez Al-Assad about what Israel was prepared to offer and Israeli Premier Ehud “Barak got cold feet” over returning the whole of the occupied Golan Heights, as one of Israel’s top generals on Lebanon and Syria, Uri Sagi, remarked.
Two months later, in late May 2000, the Israelis quickly retreated from South Lebanon after 22 years of brutal occupation, without a deal with Syria and under fire from Hezbollah.
The event, and especially the nature of Israel’s hasty pullout, had a tremendous impact on Nasrallah’s thinking, immediately expanding the limits of what he believed was possible.
For the first time, the force of Arab and Islamic arms had pushed Israel out of a huge chunk of occupied territory. The Israeli leadership, for its part, was divided and seemed set to stay that way. And although its military could wreak tremendous suffering on enemies far and near (civilians and combatants alike), it seemed as though Israeli society could no longer bear the kind of battlefield causalities that had become necessary to destroy deeply embedded, asymmetrical actors such as Hezbollah.
The region, Nasrallah now believed, was at the dawn of “a new historical era.”
“O, people of Palestine,” he told a rapturous victory celebration in the southern border town of Bint Jbeil, “the road to Palestine and your road to freedom follows the path of resistance and intifada… You do not need tanks, strategic balance, rockets or cannons to liberate your land; all you need are the martyrs who shook and struck fear into this angry Zionist entity…. I tell you: the Israel that owns nuclear weapons and has the strongest air force in the region is weaker than a spider’s web.”
Although Nasrallah’s speech that day was perhaps understandably couched in the euphoria of the moment, the enduring aspect that would become more pronounced years later was the relative lack of economy in his logic – the “irrational exuberance” or “unbalanced charisma” that some leading Hezbollah supporters had already been publicly warning the Party about for several years.
After all, it had been the “balance of terror” Hezbollah was able to achieve - represented, in part, by the maxim “you bomb our civilians and we will rocket yours” – that recalibrated the “rules of the game” and precipitated Israel’s withdrawal, not just committed fighters.
And the various legal agreements and negotiations ostensibly between Israel and Hezbollah (most notably, the US and French initiated April Understanding of 1996) had been vital in calibrating the conflict, thereby shoring up public support among the Lebanese for Hezbollah’s continued use of violence.
Although Israel was beset by various problems and threats, the Jewish state was still the single most powerful nation in the Middle East – and it did have nuclear weapons with all that entailed in terms of international relations and any presumed final “victories.”
True to form, and despite the undoubtedly strong temptation to reach further given the significance of what Hizbullah had just accomplished, Nasrallah nevertheless reminded his audience that there were still a series of open questions and contingencies in the region, and that Hezbollah needed to become “more humble” in victory.
He also suggested, as he had for several years, that a roadmap for containing future violence was still available to those adversaries who might seek to undermine, rather than destroy, the Party.
“I advise [Barak] to leave Shebaa Farms and put the issue to rest,” Nasrallah warned his bitter foe, in reference to a tiny strip of water-rich land in South Lebanon that the Israeli’s insisted on keeping.
As with so many of Nasrallah’s challenges, however, neither Barak nor the incoming Bush administration would call his hand, despite multiple opportunities for doing so – gifting to the party what would come to be called the “four bleeding wounds” (occupied territory, illegal over flights by the Israeli air force, Lebanese prisoners in Israeli jails and coordinates for Israeli planted landmines in South Lebanon).
Though somewhat diminished within Lebanon as far as Hezbollah’s right to bear arms was concerned, Nasrallah’s hold on reason was nevertheless able to stand fast – a particularly fortuitous turn since it came at exactly the moment when his opponents began racheting up their campaign to convince the world that Nasrallah was, in fact, the true, “A-Team” leader of unbridled, international terrorism.
Although the events of 9/11 rudely reacquainted the world with Nasrallah and Hezbollah (with some in the US arguing that both should have been taken out as an immediate second order of business), it was the increasing US pressure on Syria, whose regime lay squarely in the Bush crosshairs, and the invasion of Iraq that had the most noticeable, moderating effect on the Party’s dealings.
Just days after liberation, in May 2000, Nasrallah had been able to confidently announce to the Pan-Arab daily Al-Wasat that, although “it is a complex subject, we consider a supportive national consensus to be important but not vital to the Resistance.”
As the Syrian backstop began to wobble, however, between 2001 and 2004, Nasrallah realized that he would, in fact, have to rely on exactly such a consensus when it came to Hezbollah and its ability to exercise violence.
The “bleeding wounds” and the limited, purely domestic military operations built around them moved front and center in the Party’s public rhetoric – later amended with additional emphasis on the evidently chaotic and destructive force of US power in the region.
When the Sunni former Premier of Lebanon, Rafik al-Hairi was assassinated in early 2005, and Syria was forced by Lebanese and outside powers to quit the country (with Nasrallah saying, in effect, “Thank You,” but we won’t fight for you to stay), the essence of this strategy – embedding the Party widely in the rational calculations of Lebanese – further accelerated.
Hezbollah affiliated individuals met with Bush administration officials in an effort to feel out possible terms of co-existence; the Party voiced its support, in principle, for an international tribunal that would investigate and try the killers of al-Hariri; and, most importantly, Hezbollah joined in a winning electoral slate with the core elements of the anti-Syrian alliance (known as March 14), arguably handing them a narrow majority in Parliament in exchange for a Cabinet statement recognizing Hezbollah’s right to liberate the Shebaa Farms in south Lebanon.
One Hezbollah official even joined the government for the first time, thereby putting the party’s reformist claims to the test.
At this particular moment of great danger, then, Nasrallah fell back on those aspects that had long been attractive to so many of his fellow citizens: his wiliness to compromise, including with bitter enemies, his openness to different viewpoints and his commitment to upholding the promises that he made, especially on core issues of justice.
Even when, in advance of the June 2005 elections, the local and international media were sent into a tizzy over his threat to “cut off” any hand that tried to “seize” Hezbollah’s weapons, a careful observer could see that on this, the most sensitive issue for Nasrallah, only extremity from one side – through violence or “seizure” – would be matched by extremity from the party, no more, no less: “Apart from [a seizure],” he explained, joining the seemingly unreasonable to its opposite, “we are open to suggestions, because this is a Lebanese issue: it has to do with Lebanon’s fate, and therefore concerns us all. Let is therefore sit together and discuss things, we are as open as we can be in this regard, because we care about what is best for Lebanon.”
Nasrallah himself did, soon after, sit at a table of “National Dialogue” with the other Lebanese factions where the core issue was indeed Hezbollah’s arms.
But even before these sessions opened, he had already sketched out for the Lebanese and other interested international parties, primarily the US, what it would take for Hezbollah to peacefully integrate its growing military capabilities under the authority of the state.
The first pillar, he stressed was that any forced disarmament – no matter the actor – would be met by counter-force.
Second, the Lebanese government and its purported allies must endeavor to end the four “bleeding wounds” still open with the Israelis:.
Third, the Lebanese Army (and the political offices governing it) would have to be expanded to a point where they could credibly defend all of the country – especially the vulnerable Southern region inhabited mainly by poor Shiites.
“The big question,” Nasrallah said in a April 2006 speech, headlined by his (soon to be realized) “promise” to free Lebanon’s prisoners in Israel, “is [this]: How do we protect Lebanon?”
Relying on a form of discourse he often employed to promote independent reasoning and a sense of contingency among his audiences, Nasrallah asked a series of cascading questions: “Will going back to the Armistice Agreement of 1949 protect Lebanon and its people? Are international guarantees, given by Bush, Blair or anyone else, sufficient to protect Lebanon? Let us debate whether Lebanon’s security can be guaranteed by military alliances and mutual defense pacts.”
Looking back now at Nasrallah’s speech just two and a half months before a war that would kill more than a thousand Lebanese civilians, several dozen Israeli civilians and incur billions in losses to the economy and the environment of Lebanon, one cannot help but feel a great sense of sadness that Nasrallah’s questions were not, in fact, answered by his far more powerful array of adversaries – especially since the answers would have entailed relatively “inexpensive” steps compared to the other conflicts in the region (the Shebaa Farms are neither the Golan Heights nor Jerusalem in the pantheon of Arab-Israeli disputes).
But two problems stood in the way – and Nasrallah seems to have banked on it.
First, the US, as the primary backer of both the March 14-led government and the state of Israel, would have had to have understood Hezbollah on its own terms in order to take the risk of undermining the party from within.
In other words, Bush administration policymakers would have had to have viewed the party not just as a Syrian-Iranian proxy – an irredeemable terrorist group committed to evil doing at all costs – but instead as a complex actor susceptible to its own “Spider Web” of Lebanese and regional constraints.
Without such an understanding, as quickly became evident, convincing the Israelis to end the bleeding wounds and accept a strong Lebanese army would be well-nigh impossible – and perhaps understandably so.
Indeed, for Tel Aviv, as we now know thanks to leaks in the Israeli media, occasional US overtures to return the Shebaa Farms or allow the transfer of weapons to the Lebanese army seemed to offer only the temporary benefit of propping up the March 14 government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora (a figure the Israelis knew held little real power).
In the absence of a convincing roadmap from the Americans as to how Hezbollah could be boxed into peacefully disarming through a wider strategy along these lines, not much more could be expected.
That the Bush administration failed in this regard is particularly disheartening when one recalls the remarkable meeting between Nasrallah and General Michel Aoun in a local Beiruti church in February 2006.
The alliance that both men consecrated that day – one that would withstand war, civil unrest, economic collapse and even the end of Aoun’s presidential ambitions (something that March 14 liked to suggest was the only reason for Aoun’s move) – stands as perhaps the most glaring indicator of Washington’s (and March 14’s) lack of understanding and imagination following the “Cedar Revolution” of 2005.
Although the document signed between the most popular Shiite leader and the most popular Christian leader was derided by political opponents as unspecific rhetoric and mere cover for the larger ambitions of both, the more pressing issue that should have immediately became evident was embodied in a fairly simple question that still has not been adequately addressed: How could the world’s worst terrorist – supposedly more dangerous than Bin Laden – join a political-electoral alliance with the largest Christian bloc in Lebanon?
Even if one accepts some of the more considered March 14 charges concerning the irrational, black nature of the alliance (which stands a good chance of winning the majority in next week's polls), Nasrallah’s gamble on Aoun and most of the Christians was a remarkable demonstration of just how far he would go in relying on the rational appeal of Hezbollah’s positions.
“With the signing of the understanding between Hezbollah and the Free Patriotic Movement, there is now a clear statement that, after the Shebaa Farms and the prisoner issues, we should attend to the issue of Lebanon’s strategic national defense,” Nasrallah said in April 2006.
For the first time, the Party had spelled out a horizon for Hezbollah’s weapons and hung that promise on a constituency who need not have relied on the party’s power for succor or protection – unlike an increasing number of Shiites.
In the months that followed, the charges by Nasrallah’s detractors of a false consciousness among supporters or fear mongering seemed ever less applicable. But rather than exploring the possibility of a rational basis for the “Understanding” – why, that is, so many Christians felt their interests would be better protected by an alliance with Nasrallah rather than one with March 14 and the Americans – Aoun became as one-dimensional as Nasrallah: a dangerous, power thirsty “Syrian Bootlicker” (and in 2007, the object of an Orwellian Presidential Executive Order targeting his US-based supporters, including their children, as the enemies of democracy).
Of course, Nasrallah had hedged his gamble on Aoun even further – not only by banking on his adversaries inability to understand and then challenge the party’s rationale, but also, secondarily, in the belief that the US could never really accept that a great many Lebanese, including some of Aoun’s supporters, might logically view Israel as an inherently dangerous neighbor – one that should be credibly defended against by indigenous forces.
If (as Washington believed) Hezbollah was immune to the consequences of a build-up of Lebanon’s defensive capabilities, and if, on top of this, the Americans failed to see how Israel could be a threat, then the Lebanese army would certainly always remain weak (as indeed it has), even under a government “strongly” backed by the US.
Nasrallah accordingly hammered away on the theme of long-term threats emanating from Israel – threats centering on declining water resources, potential cross-border violence initiated by non-state actors, and the specter of a future population transfer of Palestinians should the peace process fail.
All of these arguments – the heart of Hezbollah’s public raison d’etre – were, of course, only amplified by Israel’s disproportionate reaction to the July 12, 2006 abduction of two IDF soldiers, not to mention the recent war in Gaza and the February 2009 Knesset elections that saw the main proponent of a population transfer solution rise to become Foreign Minister.
Thus, instead of addressing Nasrallah logic, the Bush administration and March 14 continued further down a path characterized by direct pressure and force as a means to break Hezbollah’s position (and existence) within the mainstream discourse of Lebanon.
Unfortunately though, even when the strategy was applied during the two best known cases – the July 2006 War and the two Cabinet decisions that led to the May 2008 clashes in the streets of Beirut – Nasrallah was, remarkably, still able to bring a convincing case to many Lebanese (perhaps enough to deliver a majority) that Hezbollah’s conduct was legitimate; that it was within the bounds of reason.
In the July War, for example, although he was immediately vulnerable to the charge of irrationally and selfishly provoking Israel and the international community, the IDF’s violent, sustained counter-reaction, with the encouragement of Washington, effectively buried the force of the argument.
As Israel’s Winograd Commission would later suggest, a more successful approach would have combined limited military strikes with a sustained diplomatic campaign aimed at slowly collapsing Hezbollah’s domestic position over its head.
But this was not to be.
After 33 days of open war, Nasrallah and Aoun argued with apparent traction that the US-Israeli reaction to what was formally a border incident, merely underscored the fact that Israel was a dangerous enemy, unrestrained by international law or agreements (i.e. precisely what March 14 had promised would protect Lebanon).
Similarly, although the United States strongly and publicly supported the two Cabinet directives pushed through by March 14 last spring – one sacking the pro-Hezbollah airport chief and another calling on the security forces to seize a critical part of Hezbollah’s weaponry – even a marginally less confrontational approach focused on just the issue of better securing the airport would have prevented Nasrallah from sending his troops and allies onto the street, according to leading Hezbollah figures themselves.
The Party’s use of arms domestically should have greatly diminished its support, and, at the very least, in the wake of the July War, led to a breakdown of the Aoun-Nasrallah agreement.
But neither of the hoped-for results came to fruition.
Instead of ratcheting up domestic pressure on the Party, March 14 and the Bush administration went to such ill-considered extremes that they allowed Nasrallah to, once again, maintain his hold on reason.
In fact, following the May 2008 violence, March 14 began to look like the irrational actor because it had provoked a conflict that, it turned out, its allies were not willing to fight.
And, most importantly, it had openly tried to “seize” Hezbollah’s weapons even though the core motivation for the action – the sovereign power of the state – was exactly what had been in legitimate dispute for more than two years, with the Constitutionality of the Cabinet issuing the decisions itself hotly contested by an array of respected Lebanese figures.
Still, both the July War and the May clashes put Hezbollah and Nasrallah in a clearly more difficult and uncomfortable domestic position – just as the Israeli withdrawal did in 2000.
Although this result could have been secured with far less costly, less morally egregious means – as the Winograd Commission recommended – the central problem now confronting Lebanon and the region is that the two years of conflict between 2006 and 2008 launched Nasrallah into a fundamentally different frame of mind regarding the over arching conflict with Israel.
Aspects of the intellectual and spiritual shift had, of course, been evident in the Spider Web speech of 2000, but the July War, the February 2008 assassination of Hizbullah commander Imad Mughniyeah and then last May’s violence all crystallized what Nasrallah now publicly views as the impending, “divine” telos of history.
It has not been a total collapse, then, but rather a sustained drive towards unreason and potential violence.
Nasrallah’s “Divine Victory” speech in late September 2006 – it was only a “Victory” in 2000 – set the tone for the growing gap between the less messianic domestic rhetoric and the party’s stance on the future of Israel – between what Nasrallah used to promise in the battlefield and what he now promises to the world.
Arab armies and peoples, he told the war-weary crowd of over a million one month after the August 14 ceasefire, are, “not only able to liberate Gaza and the West Bank and East Jerusalem, they are simply capable of regaining Palestine from sea to river by one small decision and with some determination,”
“This is the equation,” Nasrallah declared. “Today, your resistance broke the image of Israel. We have done away with the invincible army. We have also done away with the invincible state. Indeed, we have done away with it. I am not exaggerating or voicing slogans.”
Nasrallah ended his speech, however, by noting that a definitive end to Hezbollah’s arms could still be had – that his gamble was still effectively on the table – if the US, Israel and March 14 were finally willing to call: “We are defending ourselves. We are defending our country, our people, our kinfolk, and our villages. We fought in 1982, 1993, 1996, 2000, and 2006, and we did not ask anyone to defend us. There is one case that is acceptable to us [regarding an end to Hezbollah’s independent weaponry], namely that Lebanon comes to have a strong and capable army capable of protecting Lebanon against any Israeli attack.”
The phrases employed here were more specific than before, but they were also less important for future events.
Nasrallah had decisively broken through the greatest barrier in his own thinking, in that of the leadership and, crucially, in the hearts of his supporters: Israel could be defeated, once and for all, and, more to the point, it could be done with relative ease.
It was not until the one-year commemoration of the end of the war in August 2007, however, that Nasrallah would took the argument full circle.
In the intervening months, as the party struggled to rebuild and shore up its position amid renewed pressure by its adversaries, he offset his more expansive promises – that Hezbollah could keep on paying families for temporary housing in perpetuity and could rebuild “More Beautiful Than Before” – with decidedly more measured talk.
He cautioned against “unbalanced” analyses that the US position in the region had collapsed. He reiterated Hezbollah’s modest capabilities by explaining that the party could not “prevent” an Israeli invasion or knock Israeli fighters out of the sky. And he corrected one interviewer who suggested that Nasrallah believed Israel was in a present state of collapse.
He also walked back some of the more striking accusations his surrogates (and arguably, at one point, he himself) had made in labeling March 14 leaders as traitors and recalibrated independent reasoning at the center of his discourse.
“It is the responsibility of people,” he cautioned, “to look for right and truth. As they hear me now, they should not accept everything I say. Even the masses of Hezbollah and the resistance should not do so.”
As Hezbollah’s preponderance of military power grew, however, and as the party’s domestic and regional opponents appeared ever more desperate in applying pressure, Nasrallah began to pursue an increasingly narrow line, especially in regards to the absolute righteousness and inevitability of his own logic regarding Israel.
On August 14, 2007, he declared simply, “If you Zionists, think of launching a war on Lebanon, I will not promise you surprises like the ones that happened, but I promise you a big surprise that could change the course of the war and the fate of the region.”
In March 2005, Nasrallah had promised that the hundreds of thousands gathered to “Thank Syria” could “determine the fate of the nation.”
Now he promised Hezbollah could change lands well beyond.
When Mughnieyeah was assassinated the next year, Nasrallah declared unambiguously that Israel would collapse, not in ten or twenty years, but in the “coming few years.”
His assessment had been preceded by a series of extraordinary statements that laid the foundation for this, his most daring promise: that Hezbollah influenced Iran and Syria more than both influenced Hezbollah (he later declared his unabashed allegiance to Iran’s Wilayat al-Faqih, the rule of a supreme religious guide, without further explanation); that Hezbollah’s supporters had definitively “migrated from ignorance to knowledge, from disorganization to planning, and from weakness to strength;” and that a decisive majority of Lebanese now supported Hezbollah’s vision.
For evidence of this, he pointed to dubiously worded opinion polls and estimated crowd sizes at rallies.
With Mughniyeah’s killing, though, Nasrallah’s rhetoric was set loose.
Hezbollah had the capacity to wage sustained and ultimately successful “open war” – far ahead of his promise in the 2006 war to hit Tel Aviv if the Israelis were to hit central Beirut.
The Party could also finally knock Israeli planes out of the sky, he suggested.
“In the aftermath of the 2000 withdrawal,” Nasrallah said, “the question was no longer: Can we fight the Israeli army? Can we defeat the Israeli army? These questions have ended. The only remaining question was: Can this entity cease to exist? Well, before the year 2000 this was impossible. Before the Lebanese resistance and the first and second Palestinian intifada, this talk was merely a legend and madness…I can say that after 2006 this question was undoubtedly answered… there was a new answer.. Could Israel be wiped out of existence? Yes, and a thousand times yes, Israel can be wiped out of existence.”
Soon after his declaration of impending victory, Nasrallah laid out eight, detailed points as to why he believed the Jewish state of Israel was finished.
Not surprisingly, as is his custom, they borrowed heavily from analyses laid out by Israelis themselves concerning the inner, long-term dangers facing their state.
They did not, however, address exactly how the Israelis would react in the event of an impending collapse, whether such a reaction might entail mutual destruction or whether most Lebanese thought such a process desirable in the first place.
Nasrallah, always the careful puveyor of cost-benefit calculations, had cast aside exactly the question he had long said should be paramount for any resistance movement or people: will self-sacrifice lead to a reasonable outcome?
No matter. Mughnieyeah’s revenge had become a critical lever in accelerating the effective end of such questions: for it had become permanent.
“As for retaliation,” Nasrallah explained, “It will always be in front of us.”
The constant Israeli warnings about a possible retaliation, mixed with overconfident statements about how deterrence had been restored because of a lack of retaliation, were precisely what Nasrallah was seeking.
Unwittingly, the Israelis were only exacerbating some of the pressures that Nasrallah, in his eight points, believes will ultimately doom Israel: the key being global, perpetual fear.
If a full frontal attack came in the future, all the better, although it was not required and should never be rushed into (Hezbollah’s lack of involvement in the Gaza war provided further evidence of this).
Fear would inexorably work its magic in the coming years to precipitate the internal factors of Israeli’s decline – among which, he said, were demography, emigration, corruption and mounting miscalculations in conducting international relations and international conflict.
Either way, Nasrallah promised, “Your eight [IDF] divisions will be destroyed on our hills and mountains, in our valleys and homes, and at the feet of our mujahidin. When this day comes, our brother Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip would be able to decide the battle with the modest capabilities they have, God willing.”
More than one year on, Nasrallah’s discourse has, for the most part, expanded only further along the plane of unreason. In the wake of the Gaza invasion, similitude and clarity, he explained, had at last been achieved in the region. “All masks have dropped.”
Gaza was exactly like Lebanon; the two trends on the Arab and Islamic scenes – of resistance and settlement - are now exactly counterposed. (“All of Europe is worthless,” he added, almost as an afterthought, and even though Hezbollah MPs would later travel to Britain.)
Of particular note, the Egypt of President Hosni Mubarak now stands unambiguously as a murderous, collaborator regime that should be toppled.
And it will be, Nasrallah suggests. For the resistance project “is no longer threatened.”
The divisions are too stark and powerful. And faith is now the all-erasing “surprise.” (Little wonder then that last month, Nasrallah publicly pinned Egypt’s accusation of assisting Hamas proudly to his chest)
“[Our adversaries] cannot comprehend that this battle has entered a totally different stage. This new stage's motive, title, and incentive are the belief in God, trust in God, content in God, dependence on God, and hope to win God’s reward whatever the worldly results were.
“In such cases,” he added, in an uncanny parallel to the threat that lies at the heart of Israel’s nuclear program (codename: Samson), “the ability to bear calamities and to stand the loss of the beloved, the dear, the children, money and wealth becomes something else.”
When, two months ago, Nasrallah taunted the new/old Israeli leadership, he did so with a special aside to Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.
Acknowledging Hezbollah had not yet “defeated” him, Nasrallah promised that Lieberman’s time, too, would come.
After several years of hoping that Hezbollah would one day be able to match Israel in battle, Nasrallah had finally reached the Promised Land; and the extreme right among the Zionists would be his last opponent.
Just as biblical Samson faced the Philistines with suicidal, but earth-shaking resolve, Nasrallah has now squared himself off with his most bitter of enemies.
It is a match up that Nasrallah believes Hezbollah – and somehow Lebanon too, he says, without elaboration or even pause – can and should win.
But it is one that should cause immense concern for the rest of the world and for the citizens of the two respective countries.
Sounding a theme which Lieberman voiced only a few weeks ago in his first press conference as FM – in reverse of course – Nasrallah concluded one of his latest speeches by saying, “The evidence shows whenever we, the Arabs, made concessions, the haughtier and more arrogant and spoilt the Israelis became, the more killings and assassinations they carried out, and the more they disavowed past agreements, and the more they coveted our land, sanctities, waters, and resources.
“Is not that the truth,” he asked?
The time, it seems, for a definitive answer to both Nasrallah and Lieberman has come, unless the world at large is willing to risk their enlightenments turning into what will surely be an awful reality for all those involved.
- Nicholas Noe is editor-in-chief of the Beirut-based news translation service Mideastwire.com and the editor of the recent book Voice of Hezbollah: The Statements of Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah (Verso). He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.