Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah wants war. His public wants war. But to get the war that he wants, he has to wait.
It was the third night of the Second Lebanon War, in July 2006, and Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary-general of Hezbollah, was wrapping up his first—and probably most important—of what would be more than 10 wartime speeches.
Two days before, on the afternoon of July 12, Nasrallah had only seen fit to hold a brief press conference where he explained that Israel’s sole hope for getting back the two soldiers who had been captured in a cross-border operation that morning was by indirectly negotiating, as it had on several prior occasions, for the release of Lebanese prisoners held in Israeli jails.
In a direct nod to the growing domestic political discontent in Lebanon over the matter—as well as the widely held Western perception of Hezbollah as hostage-taking Islamic radicals bent on wanton destruction—Nasrallah also added the caveat that if there was to be further violence, it should be conducted according to the terms of the U.S.-negotiated “April Understanding” of 1996—the product of an earlier devastating war between Israel and Hezbollah that sought to prevent both sides from targeting civilians and from firing from “civilian, populated areas.”
By the evening of July 14, however, more was clearly needed to rally Hezbollah’s fighters, the Lebanese in general, and the wider Arab and Islamic communities that were, together, Nasrallah’s main target audiences.
The course of the war, the condition of Lebanon, and indeed the future of Hezbollah as a coherent movement whose constituents would have to live on in any postwar Lebanon all seemed to be in grave doubt.
Already, Israel had begun a massive bombing campaign targeting some of the country’s civilian infrastructure, suspected Hezbollah targets (including the homes and offices of various officials), and border positions where Hezbollah was firing volleys of Katyusha rockets toward Israeli military and civilian targets alike.
After delivering separate messages to his troops (with ample references to Shiite heroes), his Lebanese compatriots (in the language of Arab nationalism), and then to the Israelis (“You wanted an open war; we are going to open war and we are ready for it”), Nasrallah’s disembodied voice—he was speaking live, but off camera—turned to the subject of “Arab rulers.”
“I just want to say it briefly: We are adventurous,” he said in reference to an anonymous Saudi official who had earlier criticized Hezbollah’s capturing operation as an “adventure.”
“We, in Hezbollah, are adventurous,” he continued. “That is very true, we have been so since 1982. In 1982, you and the world described us as insane, but we proved that we were even-minded people. As for the insane, this is another issue. I do not want to engage in an argument with anyone.” He then addressed the Arab rulers directly: “You should count on your reason. We will count on our adventure.”
At that point, the camera jerked from a static picture of Nasrallah’s face, out from Beirut and toward a darkened Mediterranean Sea. At least one missile flare was clearly discernible, speeding off toward a Sa’ar class Israeli corvette.
“The surprises I promised you will begin from now,” Nasrallah intoned.
“Now, at sea, the Israeli warship off the coast of Beirut, which attacked our infrastructure, people’s homes and civilians—look at it burning. This is only the beginning. There will be a long way until the end. Peace be upon you.”
It was, simply, a masterstroke of war, politics, and theater. Hezbollah’s power together with the impotence of Arab regimes—harkening back to the false promises of Egypt’s President Jamal Abdul Nasser and the divided Arab ranks of 1948—had been illuminated live on satellite TV for all to see.
Thirty-one days later, when a U.N.-brokered ceasefire went into effect, the “divine victory” that Nasrallah would soon declare did in fact appear to be both remarkable and compelling to many in the Middle East and beyond—even to the Israelis who shortly were compelled themselves to reshuffle their leadership and admit defeat, more or less, via the Winograd Commission.
Of course, the sense of triumph was probably never as bright (for Hezbollah’s supporters, especially) as it had been the night of July 14—before most of the estimated 1,200 Lebanese and 44 Israeli civilians were dead and before Nasrallah was forced to retreat to the confines of a bunker.
But no matter how one views the outcome of the war, the crucial fact was that 13 years after the initial promise of the Oslo Accords had faded, an unfortunate principle—an “artful balance” as one Lebanese author termed it—that Hezbollah had long relied on was forced decisively back to the center of Nasrallah’s discourse and the discourse of the region as a whole: Reason and adventure, non-violence and violence are inextricably linked when it comes to achieving justice and ending humiliation.
In fact, as Nasrallah argues further, the operation between these two sides might just be the only way left to grudgingly force a negotiated resolution of the conflict.
Surely, neither the secretary-general nor Hezbollah want to see a negotiated resolution when it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict. On this point, there is no dissimulation, as many critics of Islamists often charge.
The Party of God, Hezbollah, “craves” total justice, total victory. One democratic state of Palestine.
“In the next war we will triumph,” Nasrallah now promises, “and change the features of the region” decisively toward these ends.
But as he has also consistently stressed in his speeches and interviews over the years—although usually with greater clarity and emphasis than at the height of battle—the path of violent resistance cannot remain outside of, and in direct contradiction to, reason or compromise.
If it were to do so, it would only be a matter of time before a popular movement collapsed—as al-Qaeda did in Iraq—under the weight of total violence, total rejection, and an all-consuming hatred.
Indeed, this is the lesson Nasrallah took away from the fall of Saddam Hussein and the subsequent rise and fall of the Sunni “Takfiri” movements, which largely targeted Shiite “unbelievers.”
“We should all learn a lesson,” he told an audience of party supporters and cadres shortly after Baghdad was captured, “and so should the regimes in power in the Arab and Islamic countries.” The lesson to be learned from the U.S.-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.”
For Nasrallah, then, any popular resistance movement must act in both the short-term, material interests of the people (which is a straightforward instrumental rationality) as well as in their longer-term, spiritual interests, their divine, absolutist interests—two calculations, it should be noted, that can sometimes radically collide, especially when Nasrallah’s messianic clock begins counting down.
You rely on your version of reason, your instrumental rationality, your realpolitik, and we will rely on the dialectic between even-mindedness and (sometimes unbearable, even oppressive) adventure.
Accordingly, although the point is often overlooked or summarily dismissed by most Western analysts (as well as by some in the Arab and Islamic spheres), Nasrallah has regularly gone to great lengths in challenging Arab states to yoke his own particular logic of resistance (even-mindedness/adventure) in the service of the negotiated settlement the West and others seem to count on—even as he works tirelessly to increase his party’s military power and carefully calibrates its next military and non-military moves.
The hard question that emerges from this is how to deal forthrightly with the new reality—and this complex, dialectical approach—that Nasrallah and, to a much lesser degree, the Resistance Axis as a whole (Syria, Iran, and Hamas together with Hezbollah) have forcefully re-imposed on the peace process in the spirit, they argue, of the October 1973 War, the Intifada(s), and Hezbollah’s own success in ejecting Israel from Lebanon in May 2000.
Can the demands of the Resistance Axis really be refused, in part or full, at the negotiating table much longer?
If yes, then can it really be reasonably attacked and removed—led, as it is, on its front line by Hezbollah, backed in its strategic depth by chemical-tipped Syrian SCUDS, and supported by the evident/hidden capabilities and determination of Iran?
If it cannot, then how might the “false promise of resistance,” as the Lebanese pundit Michael Young derisively calls it, be turned into a byword for compromise instead of just mutually assured disaster? Can one actually use the Resistance Axis’s partial, but still vital, reliance on reason and compromise to radically undermine that which is indeed violent and oppressive about it?
“A peace agreement will be a victory for the rationale of resistance”
One particularly fruitful avenue to begin answering these questions, especially regarding Hezbollah, was provided 10 years ago when it seemed as though Syria and Israel would actually sign a peace agreement.
In the weeks before the final negotiating session in Geneva, even as his fighters were stepping up their attacks on the Israelis and their proxies with operations in South Lebanon, Nasrallah placidly told Egypt’s official daily, Al-Ahram, that, “as for Israel, we will join with other elements opposed to normalization. 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 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 various enemies).
Asked what he would do when the Star of David flag was raised, in peace, over an Israeli embassy in Beirut, Nasrallah said he would not fight with violence but that his movement and supporters would not trade with the Israelis, would not interact with them, and would not welcome them in their areas as tourists or investors.
But only a few weeks after Nasrallah’s interview, the so-called “Syrian Track” collapsed.
As one of Israel’s top officials on Lebanon and Syria, General Uri Sagi, subsequently explained—and essentially reiterated in an April 2010 interview with Israel’s Maariv newspaper—President Bill Clinton “lied” to a dying Syrian President Hafez Assad about having a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights in his pocket (including up to the northeastern shoreline of Lake Tiberius), and Israeli Premier Ehud Barak got “cold feet” about giving back the last hundred meters or so of territory partially ringing Israel’s vital freshwater source.
Events had turned out just as Nasrallah had predicted weeks before, despite his stated acquiescence to what had seemed at the time like a probable deal between Israel and Syria:
When the Arabs went to Madrid [in 1991], it was said that the matter would be over in three months, that everything was settled beforehand and the only thing left was to prepare public opinion to accept what was about to be signed. We are now in the year 2000. So you see, things aren’t always as simple as they are made out to be. It is true that the Americans want a settlement. We don’t underestimate the extent of America’s influence on events. But America is not God. It can’t just will things for them to happen. American policy has failed many times and in different parts of the world. That is why we don’t believe that matters are going the way the Americans want them to. The Israelis are not prepared to accept a settlement in which they have to make concessions. They want a settlement on their terms, and not all Arabs—especially Syria—are prepared to accept that.
Two months later, in late May 2000, the Israelis abruptly withdrew from South Lebanon, without conditions or an agreement and under fire from Hezbollah.
According to top U.S. negotiator (and now National Security Council official) Dennis Ross, the effect of the withdrawal in general was that, “Suddenly there was a new model for dealing with Israel: the Hezbollah model. Don’t make concessions. Don’t negotiate. Use violence. And the Israelis will grow weary.”
The comment is particularly strange, though, coming from Ross since he had helped broker all three of the “Understandings” with Hezbollah through the 1990s, especially the 1996 April Understanding, which did entail concessions by both sides, did involve negotiations, and which ended up mitigating violence during Israel’s occupation of South Lebanon.
Moreover, Ross had been vigorously involved in the lengthy negotiations with the Syrians, who exerted effective control over Hezbollah, to a point where a deal was only a few hundred meters away.
Ross had Nasrallah publicly positioned, in Arabic and in front of his supporters and supposed masters in Tehran, to turn a cold shoulder to an Israeli ambassador in Beirut.
No matter, the lesson was lost on Ross, just as it was on many of the other officials involved in the effort. Hezbollah was not merely interested in relentlessly spoiling a perfectly neutral and just peace process through the wanton use of violence. The party was, instead, carefully and continually modifying the underlying balance of power in a stacked process (rightly or wrongly, depending on one’s view) to strengthen negotiating cards that it did not believe in, but that it recognized it had to deal with to in order to stay inside the bounds of reason and, ultimately, survivability.
It was a joint Israeli and U.S. failure, then, to meet the minimum Syrian demands in Geneva that had truly reinvigorated the “Hezbollah model” of negotiations through the occasional projection of violence, leading some observers in the United States and in Israel wondering years later if those few meters of shoreline had really been worth it. Just last month, in fact, Nasrallah hit on these sentiments, saying, “Now when the Israelis review what happened in 2000, they will weep in regret. They will say: Had we reached an agreement with Syria before 2000 and returned the Golan to it, we would have gotten rid of Lebanon, Hezbollah, Hamas, and Jihad, and everything called resistance, in addition to Iran also. Regrettably, we were stubborn and we failed to reach such a settlement.”
As long as the unfavorable balance of power between Israel and Syria and Israel and Lebanon persisted in the intervening years after the failure at Geneva, Nasrallah was able to deliver a compelling message linking his preferred message of resistance to the message of settlement: Whichever side you are on, use Israel’s declining Qualitative Military Edge (QME) over some of its adversaries and the example of Hezbollah’s asymmetrical power to the advantage of your desired end.
In the meantime, we will go on with the work of resistance.
By the time the Second Lebanon War was finished, however, that military edge had eroded remarkably in the direction of Hezbollah (though Israel still holds a clear preponderance of power on this score).
The Israeli Defense Forces had performed miserably during 34 days of open war, even according to its own accounts. Hezbollah had stood its ground, inflicted casualties, and reached progressively deeper into the Israeli heartland in a sustained manner as few had ever been able to before.
And even though Nasrallah would later admit that he had miscalculated the ferocity of the Israeli response, he was deftly able to keep his movement in the realm of reason for a decisive majority of Lebanese, Arabs, and Muslims since the Israeli response to what was properly a border incident had been so seemingly wanton and unreasonable.
Bolstered by this, and with Syria having been kicked out of the country the year before—but maintaining its all-important position as the only friendly land route for supplies—Nasrallah’s motivation for linking Hezbollah’s resistance project to the settlement process began to fade.
Still, in a little-recognized section of his “Divine Victory” speech in September 2006, Nasrallah felt compelled to underline the point that he was “speaking to you about the settlement you want,” in reference to the “moderate Arab states,” including “the Palestinian Authority under Mahmoud Abbas.”
“How can you obtain an honorable settlement,” he said, “while you announce day and night that you will not fight? You do not want to fight for Lebanon, Gaza, the West Bank, or even Jerusalem. How then can you obtain a reasonable settlement, while you announce every day that you will not use the oil weapon? In fact, even if anyone comes to speak to you about the oil weapon, you deride him, saying: This is backwardness. You do not want to fight, boycott, use the oil weapon, or even allow the people to come out in the street, or the resistance in Palestine to be equipped.”
Nasrallah then hit on the key point he had made six years earlier when peace seemed at hand (sounding remarkably like Western hawks today who argue for a more threatening approach to Iran): “How can these states secure a just and honorable settlement between quotes? Does the Israeli recognize them in the first place? I tell you: The Israelis today view the Resistance and the resistance men in Lebanon with great respect. As for all those lowly ones, they are not worth anything. Even the Arab initiative calls for a stand. It calls for men and power. If you can’t use power, you can at least threaten with it. The talk that we are weak will not do.”
“Realistic political behavior,” Nasrallah added soon after, dictates that you must “first convince the Israelis of the need to have a just and comprehensive peace before asking the resistance movement to lay down its arms.”
Practically, as Hezbollah would explain some months later in its revised manifesto, this means that, “the resistance option constitutes a fundamental need and an objective factor in stiffening the Arab stand and weakening the enemy, separate from the nature of the strategies of the political wagers that have been made. On the basis of the above, the resistance has no objection to spreading the benefits of adopting it as an option whereby the benefits reach the various Arab positions.”
Departing from the prepared text, Nasrallah then looked directly at the camera and said, “Even those who have opted for a settlement have a need for this resistance. Indeed, we want them [the Arab states] to benefit from the resistance.”
Four months after releasing the party’s updated platform, Nasrallah gained an unlikely backer for his logic linking the military power of Hezbollah to a settlement: U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
In a late April 2010 speech to AIPAC, Clinton warned:
We must recognize that the ever-evolving technology of war is making it harder to guarantee Israel’s security. For six decades, Israelis have guarded their borders vigilantly. But advances in rocket technology mean that Israeli families are now at risk far from those borders. Despite efforts at containment, rockets with better guidance systems, longer range, and more destructive power are spreading across the region. These challenges cannot be ignored or wished away. Only by choosing a new path can Israel make the progress it deserves to ensure that their children are able to see a future of peace, and only by having a partner willing to participate with them will the Palestinians be able to see the same future.
Perhaps not surprisingly, shortly after her remarks were delivered, news reports citing unnamed U.S. officials surfaced charging that Hezbollah had acquired the infamous SCUD missile via Syria. Whether true or not, the SCUD magnified the underlying point implied by Clinton and wholly endorsed by Nasrallah: Hezbollah is growing militarily stronger by the day, and Israel is inexorably losing its qualitative military advantage over its enemies.
The next war, if it comes, will therefore be very different from the last, all the more so since Hezbollah has learned from the last conflict; it has had its own internal Winograd Commission, devising new technological and human “surprises” in the process and ensuring that old mistakes are not made anew.
Plainly put by the party: Hezbollah will not relocate to Tunis like Yasser Arafat and his PLO did following the Israeli strangulation of Beirut in 1982. They will fight to win a total victory they believe is now coming “in the next few years,” as Nasrallah recently promised.
Seen in this vein, then, the SCUD report, originally circulated by unnamed U.S. officials, was perhaps as much a warning to Syria and Hezbollah as it was to Israel.
It is time, Clinton and Nasrallah are both saying—though from diametrically opposed ends—for Israel to change the “hardware” and “software” of its negotiating positions.
For if Israel does not—if the change is not decisive enough vis-à-vis the underlying grievances to put the Resistance Axis, especially Hezbollah, definitively outside the vital realm of reason (and therefore on a path to isolation and implosion should it continue to violently resist)—the war that the Party of God has said it “does not want” but that it nevertheless “craves” will draw ever closer until, by miscalculation or one small decision by one party, great or small, war is upon us.
In his speech late last month to mark the 10-year anniversary of the liberation of South Lebanon, Nasrallah went so far as to quote Clinton’s AIPAC speech at length, exhorting, “This is Mrs. Clinton, and this is the U.S. State Department, and this is the evaluation of the U.S. stand. This is not the evaluation of President Ahmadinejad or anyone in Palestine or in Lebanon.”
“Now,” he continued, “the Americans are telling the Jews, openly and frankly: If you do not help us; if you do help Obama to reach a settlement, then there will be no purely Jewish state. This state is threatened. Everything in it will be threatened. Now you might find someone to reach a settlement with you but you will not find anyone in the future. This means that you are heading toward the abyss, to ruination.”
Of course, the winner of this contest is anything but certain—despite those who still believe in the unchallenged military hegemony of Israel and the United States and those, on the opposite side, like Nasrallah, who believe the State of Israel is facing immediate ruination.
Two things, however, are certain: First, that in the absence of a credible settlement process, Nasrallah’s dialectic, which should be radically unstable, is only growing in strength—gaining the party allies who no longer see any other option and who no longer view Hezbollah as the only “insane” party in the Middle East.
And second: that the losers in this whole awful gamble will surely be counted on both sides—great and small, far and near.
Nicholas Noe is the editor of Voice of Hezbollah: The Statements of Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah and the 2008 Century Foundation white paper, “Re-Imaging the Lebanon Track: Towards a New US Policy.”