By Franklin Lamb – Beirut
"We in Hezbollah want to demonstrate to our adversaries and doubters what we can achieve for our fellow Lebanese and our Palestinian brothers and sisters and to show them that our Party is 10% about military matters and 90% about ending corruption and improving the quality of lives of all who live in Lebanon. We will offer the voters a clear choice and they will decide. If we win, our friends and foes alike can observe and evaluate our achievements and then work with us on a basis of mutual respect, dialogue, and cooperation if they so choose or, if we fail, vote our deputies out of Parliament. We must respect their decision." – Zeinab, a Hezbollah supporter studying at the American University of Beirut 12 September 2008
Lebanon’s 2009 election campaign is underway!
As this note is written, Hezbollah election strategists are meeting nearby studying, analyzing, debating and formularizing plans for Lebanon’s make or break 2009 elections. That poll, if it happens, may determine the foreseeable future of Lebanon and is arguably this fractured country’s most important referendum since the French more on less left in 1943.
The Hezbollah-led opposition may become the solid majority in Parliament following next May’s election, taking as many as 70 of the 128 up-for-grab Deputy Seats.
Some in the March 14 current majority will join Hezbollah out of self-interest. Others will try to use the election to eliminate rivals and gather the confetti and posters from the 2005 "cedar revolution." Others may, following the election, retire from politics. And some of Lebanon’s old soldiers and chieftains like Michel Aoun and Amin Gemayel will likely never officially retire but will slowly fade away with their boots on and waiting for the call to serve yet again.
The Hunt for Votes
As recently as this week, given the publicity over the 26th Anniversary of the Sabra-Shatila Massacre, Samir Geagea apologized at a campaign rally for "mistakes" committed by members of his party:
"I fully apologize for all the past mistakes that we committed when we were carrying out our national duties," he said, with a straight face, avoiding direct comment on the Sabra-Shatila Massacre and gliding over the slaughter and presumable "mistakes" of raping and cutting open pregnant women and bashing in the heads of babies. Geagea did not explain to those whose votes he is seeking which part of "our national duties" such acts "carried out".
Running on an undisguised anti-Hezbollah plank, and seeking to push his rival Amin Gemayel aside in order to motivate and unify the younger Phalange and Kateib elements, Samir declared: "I ask God to forgive us and so I ask the people whom we hurt [evidently the victims of the Sabra-Shatila slaughter and their surviving relatives who received no compensation from the state or from any other source] in the past to forget."
He added, "I want to tell those who are exploiting our past mistakes [read: such acts as commemorating the 26th Anniversary of the Massacre on September 16, 2008 at Martyr’s Square, Shatila Camp and distribution of student laptops to deprived Palestinian children] to stop doing so because only God can judge us."
Yes we can!
With its power at its apex—inside and outside of Lebanon—many Hezbollah members are excited at the prospect of finally being able to demonstrate what the Party is all about.
Some pro-Hezbollah voters are happy to learn the results of the just-released Chicago Council on Global Affairs poll. The poll found that by a majority of 51 to 43 percent American citizens now believe their country’s leaders should talk with the leaders of Hezbollah. Eighty-three percent of Americans—including 81 percent of Republicans and 88 percent of Democrats—think that improving their nation’s standing internationally should be a "very important" foreign policy goal.
It’s the Economy, Stupid!
It is common to hear in the Halifee Sandwich shop in Haret Hreik, or at various 2006 July War commemoration events, comments like "some of our former adversaries are in for a surprise—and we want to make it a pleasant surprise!"
The reference is to the "human face of Hezbollah" which some are urging be presented. One Hezbollah member studying at the American University of Beirut explained: "Of course we are good at beating up the Zionist thieves of Palestine but there is much more to our social movement that we can do for our Country. Like stop the decades of corruption by Lebanese officials, help the Palestinians, fix the electric, water, telephone systems, get some traffic laws enforced and address the need for a social security system that serves all of Lebanon and improve the education system. And how about a real health care system?"
"There are an awfully lot of New Dealers among Hezbollah advisors", according to one member of the Party’s politburo.
Hezbollah Burnishes Its image
Some political observers of Lebanon believe that if there is relative peace in the country, Hezbollah will do very well in the coming polling and that this will be good for the Palestinians. Others, including many in Hezbollah, think maintaining the current calm may not be easy given intensified efforts by those working to cause turmoil.
Space only allows for a brief mention of the fact that in the run-up to the coming election, Hezbollah has been trying to reduce doubts about last May’s image-damaging bloody events. Hezbollah is reaching out to undecided voters and has participated in the following initiatives:
· A flow of Hezbollah offers for dialogue addressed all the factions in Lebanon and giving high priority to last week’s presidential-sponsored dialogue, the next session of which is scheduled to be held on November 5, the day after the US Presidential election.
· Hezbollah’s Politburo member Mahmoud Qmati and other Party leaders have been calling for the launching of "a new era" based on "forgetting the past, despite all its pain and wounds."
· Hezbollah has refrained from boasting about its victory in achieving the new Lebanese policy statement which allows (for the time being– pending the 2009 election) Hezbollah to keep its weapons, and underlines the "right of Lebanon’s people, army, and resistance (referring to Hezbollah’s military wing) to liberate Israeli-occupied areas and "defend the country using all legal and possible means."
· Working on maintaining the fragile peace that it helped broker between the majority and opposition on May 21 in Doha, Qatar, leading to the creation of a unity Cabinet, in which the opposition achieved veto power over Government decisions.
· Hezbollah is also working on setting up a substantive meeting(s) with the leader of the March 14th alliance leader Saad Hariri through the efforts of Hizbullah’s coordination liaison and coordination committee head Wafik Safa. On September 7, Hasan Nasrallah announced that Hezbollah "recognizes the popular representation of the Future Movement within the Sunni community and we are ready to cooperate with them provided there were no preconditions." Executive Council chief Hashem Safieddine or deputy leader Sheikh Naim Qassem will likely head the Hezbollah delegation. Meetings during 2004 and 2005 between Saad’s father Rafiq and Hasan Nasarallah are thought to have been positive for the Country.
· Hezbollah’s Wafik Safa has been working on achieving a entente with Walid Jumblatt, leader of the Druze Progressive Socialist Party
· In an important public relations move, aimed at improving relations with the Sunni community, Hezbollah has made the decision to create a new department of Arab relations. The purpose of the new unit is to "monitor the party’s relations in the Arab homeland with the different forces, parties, popular groups, and elites, as well as with the governments with which Hezbollah has relations or with which it is going to establish relations." These developments come in the context of structural modifications that Hezbollah has decided to implement in light of developments that have occurred since the July-August 2006 War. Hassan Azzadine, a member of the Hizbullah politburo, will likely preside over the department.
· On 8/18/08 the head of Hezbollah’s political council, Sayyed Ibrahim Amin al-Sayyed signed a Memorandum of Understanding with 14 Tripoli based Lebanese Sunni Salifist groups (Tripoli is Pro-Saad Hariri-but becoming restive and his support is softening. Hezbollah wants to prevent civil strife in the area following the May incidents which some writers, including Al Akbar’s Al-Amine, have written witnessed the collapse of the infrastructure of the Future Movement). The Sunni and Shia signatories pledged that both sides would work together to stop Sunni-Shia incitement and bloodletting and would continue Muslim dialogue. This bold initiative was too much for the Welch Club which moved quickly to force a ‘temporary freeze’ by encouraging the pro-US March 14 "ruling team." Cash and threats were allegedly quickly exchanged and suddenly one of the key signatories from the Sunni Salifist side "got religion" following his uncle’s "displeasure" and claimed perhaps further study of the issue was prudent. Others have claimed that massive pressures were exerted by security bodies on the Salafist forces who signed the agreement and contacts were made by regional sides to create a front to undermine this understanding.
The Bush Administration does not feel its interests are well served by Shia-Sunni peace whether in Iraq or Lebanon. Still, the fact that the MOU was negotiated and signed demonstrates to Lebanon’s electorate that Hezbollah is reaching out to all fellow Muslims in the coming election, even their takferi "kafer labeling" nemeses who view Shia—and basically all but themselves—as heretics.
· Apologized for the shooting and killing of the Lebanese Army helicopter pilot Captain Samer Hanna and sent a delegation to meet with his family. Hezbollah Sec-Gen Nasrallah expressed condolences to the family, saying: "I address the father of the martyr Samer Hanna, and send you my deepest condolences."
· In a bid to prevent armed incidents in Lebanon, Hezbollah’s number two Sheikh Naim Qassem recently asked Lebanese immigrants who support Hezbollah in its struggle against Israel "to respect the laws and policies of their host countries and know that the fight against Israel should take place in Lebanon and not anywhere else." Qassem told a delegation of Lebanese immigrants in Dahiyeh that "Our brother emigrants should be aware that they are not supposed to be fighting Israel in their host countries, especially that these countries are not occupied by Israel."
· Separate reconciliation talks were already held last Monday between Hezbollah and Mr Jumblatt, following the assassination in a car bombing of a senior member of a rival Druze party allied with Hezbollah.
Despite conciliatory initiatives such as the above, it’s been a tough, intense and pressured spring and summer for the Hezbollah led Lebanese Resistance.
Indeed, these past 24 months since the end of the July 2006 "hot war" Hezbollah has again had to play defense to Bush Administration-Israeli attacks, this time in the form of a sustained "cold war" of dozens of projects aimed at weakening Hezbollah’s resolve, discrediting its message, attempting to scare its supporters and with dire threats of bombing "of all of Lebanon" if Hezbollah wins, all the while facilitating and excusing Israeli violations of UNSCR 1701.
In addition to countless threats from Washington and Tel Avi , on average of twice a week over the past 104, local friends of the Welch Club continue to dutifully, and sometimes on cue by monitored instructions from abroad, disparage the Party.
A Page from a 1960s US Presidential Campaign Playbook
Hezbollah has done its best to counter what it considers mis/disinformation attacks with what some local observers have come to refer to as Hezbollah’s "Defense Department." This moniker, coined by an American researcher in Dahiyeh, refers to Hezbollah’s "boiler room" operation similar to what was first seen in American politics during the 1968 Robert Kennedy Presidential Campaign and which is now standard fare for every major US political campaign.
Hezbollah’s Defense Department works in Lebanon as follows. When attacks on the Lebanese Resistance are unleashed in the media Hezbollah’s Defense Department morphs into rapid response mode. Its Media Relations Office, well known to the international media for its work during the 33 days of Israeli bombing of Lebanon, may quickly issue a rebuttal, or one of Hezbollah’s 7 members of Parliament or one or more of its political allies will respond quickly with detailed information contradicting, clarifying, or exposing what Hezbollah considers erroneous or scurrilous attacks. A recent example was the other day when Hezbollah quickly denied false reports about deployment of members of its armed units and missiles in Sannine mountain, terming them lies. A statement released by Hezbollah’s media office said the March 14 "forces have adopted a policy of lie, lie and lie until people believe you."
Some seasoned Lebanese-based journalists claim Hezbollah’s Defense Department is the most efficient media relations unit of its kind in the Middle East, second only to the international Zionist narrative juggernaut.
Long discredited claims are still heard from time to time when its adversaries need to score political points at its expense, such as that if Hezbollah wins next spring’s election it will impose an Iran style Islamic Republic, discriminate against non Shia, or repress women. Yet anyone living in Hezbollah’s society quickly learns that women not only control decision making and events in the three key rooms in their homes, the kitchen, children’s room and bedroom, but that they are the key pillars in the Party administration social programs.
In the face of these efforts to discredit it, Hezbollah is preparing with gusto for next year’s crucial Parliamentary elections from which it and its allies, including a majority of Lebanon’s Christians and significant Sunni and Druze supporters, hope to win and end what many Hezbollah members consider the US-Israel control of Lebanon’s government. It would also re-codify the right of the Lebanese Resistance to retain its military prowess pending the new government’s decision on exactly how the Islamic Resistance and Lebanon’s fledgling army will work together to defend Lebanon from foreign projects.
On the Hustings
On any given day, several key Hezbollah members are on the campaign trail. A recent and typical Sunday saw Deputy Secretary General Naim Qassim in Hermel in the Bekaa telling supporters that the Party wants to reach out to all the confessions with dialogue and partnership to build a prosperous Lebanon that can defend itself against Israeli aggression. Shortly Nawaf Musawi, one of Hezbollah most effective and popular speakers, and a favorite with visiting American and Western delegations, was in Eita Shaab and Nabiteyeh rallying Hezbollah voters and discussing Hezbollah’s position on various issues.
Yesterday (September 21, 2008) Mohammad Fneish, Hezbollah leader, Member of Parliament and Lebanon’s Labor Minister, who led Hezbollah successful support for raising Lebanon’s minimum wage which was announced this week, told voters that dialogue meetings should discuss means of protecting Lebanon and complement the process of liberating the currently occupied territories. During an Iftar banquet in the Southern port city of Tyre, Fneish said Hizbullah’s weapons should not be considered a problem because the resistance "gave a meaning and a value to the state." Fneish said that international concern about Lebanon was intended to restore Israel’s dignity after the achievements of the resistance during the summer 2006 war. He said Hizbullah would "seriously discuss all issues "because Hezbollah’s agenda does not contradict that of the state."
Other Party members were preparing for the coming election by checking voting lists, vetting candidates, honing the Party’s message to skeptical and undecided voters and urging the Party faithful to fulfill their national duty and show up at the voting booths on election day.
A pastry chef at the Patisserie across from Shatila Camp explained that Hezbollah is eager to have the voters decide such issues as "whether Lebanon remains a resistance state or yields to current US administration-Israel projects."
If Hezbollah and its allies become the majority in the next Parliament and thus the government, it will be, according to the young Shia woman, Nala, who works in the Western Union office next to the Palestine Red Crescent Akka Hosptial "for the new US administration to decide to either recognize the poll results in Lebanon and honor its countless pledges to support the will of Lebanon’s voters or once again dump a democratically elected government in the Middle East in favor of supporting the collapsing colonial enterprise still occupying Palestine." Ali, her fiancé and co-worker added, "Internationally, there is not much left but ridicule for the US Zionist-Neocon "New Middle East Democracy" project, but it is not quite dead yet, fueled as it is with hundreds of millions of dollars for its foot soldiers and supportive mercenaries."
After the election will we get normal electricity, water, Internet, road repairs?
This observer has detected among Hezbollah friends a genuine excitement about the Party’s opportunity, as one Party member related to a meeting with visiting Americans: "We in Hezbollah want to demonstrate to our adversaries and doubters what we can achieve for our fellow Lebanese and to show them that our Party is 10% about military matters and 90% about ending corruption and improving the quality of lives of all who live in Lebanon. We will offer the voters a clear choice and they will decide. If we win, our friends and foes alike can observe and evaluate our achievements and then work with us on a basis of mutual respect, dialogue, and cooperation, or vote our deputies out of Parliament. We must respect their decision. We aim to restore true democracy, transparency and accountability for all Lebanese and as I think you know Hezbollah does not love the dysfunctional confessional system but we prefer one person one vote. The same that will eventually be achieved for Palestine. Personally I believe that as we prepare for a new government and hopefully real change, a new census would be good. It has been about 76 years since the last one."
Speculation is increasing regarding Hezbollah’s economic program for Lebanon but the Party is keeping the wraps on until it is finetuned in the coming weeks. Hasan Nasrallah has made plain that the Hezollah platform will focus on social and economic issues, including education.
Before getting up from an outdoor cafe table, next to a group of Madhi Boy Scouts returning from a clean up a beach outing and from a long discussion about next year’s election, one Hezbollah organizer leaned over and whispered, in an apparent reference to a particular US Presidential candidate, "Yes we can!". He winked and gave a thumbs up as he vanished into the unlit southern Beirut night.
So what’s in it for Hezbollah if they help the Palestinians?
Much will no doubt be written about Hezbollah’s electoral prospects and program during the coming months, but one issue which Hezbollah is being lobbied on is improving the conditions of Lebanon’s approximately 405,000 Palestinians (more than 10% of Lebanon’s population), half of whom live as pariahs in 12 currently baking Palestinian Refugee Camps which will bcome fetid and swampy with fall rains.
Some Lebanese electoral strategists are advising Hezbollah "not to touch this sure loser constituency" for many reasons, not least of which is the fact that there is not one Palestinian vote to be had for Hezbollah in the coming election since Palestinians can’t vote. Others counsel that Hezbollah needs to broaden its base among Lebanon’s feuding 17 confessions, some of whom continue to blame the Palestinians for many of their woes. Still others have warned Hezbollah and to play down its vocal opposition to the US-Israel project of naturalizing the Palestinians in countries where they have been forced to settle.
Additionally, it is not forgotten that the PLO for years ran roughshod over many Shia in South Lebanon during its "state within a state" Rambo days. Some bitter Palestinian feelings also remain toward the Shia (Amal-on behalf of anti-Arafat Syria) attacks and widespread destruction and killing of more than 3,000 Palestinians during the 1986-89 ‘Camp Wars’. While Hezbollah refused to join the brutal assault on the camp Palestinians and worked to end it, other anti-Palestinian sentiments persist among some Shia from personal loses deemed to have been caused by PLO ‘hoodlums’ between the late 1970’s and 1982.
Both groups appear willing to let bygones be bygones and Hezbollah is serious about its Islamic duty to help the Palestinians. Some in Hezbollah even argue that the Sunni PLO remains the step-mother of Shia Hezbollah. Did not the PLO train Iranian Islamist dissidents years before the successful 1979 Khomeini Revolution? Weren’t Khomeini and Arafat close? Was it not the PLO’s Abu Jihad (assassinated on the orders of Ariel Sharon exactly 6 years to the day, April 16, 1988 of the 1982 Massacre) who helped Islamist groups with weapons as the PLO prepared to sail from Beirut’s ports in late August of 1982? Some of Hezbollah’s key members had previously fought with the PLO. Some still feel a sense of nostalgia for "the good old days" of their adolescence.
As Hezbollah Secretary General Hasan Nassarallah has often stated, the Party has a moral, religious, and political duty to help return Lebanon’s Palestinian Refugees to their stolen lands.
– Franklin P. Lamb, PhD is the director of Americans Concerned for Middle East Peace, Wash. DC-Beirut and is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Middle East Policy Dialogue, USA. His book "The Price We Pay: A Quarter Century of Israel’s use of American Weapons against Lebanon (1978-2006)" is available at: Amazon.com.uk. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com. Contact him at: email@example.com.