Hezbollah flags fly in Beirut last night.(Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images)
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What Is Hezbollah Thinking?

Sitting pretty, Party of God nonetheless has much to fear

Marc Tracy
January 13, 2011
Hezbollah flags fly in Beirut last night.(Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images)

Hezbollah’s toppling of Lebanon’s government yesterday left the United States, whose attention had been elsewhere (ahem), with few options; effectively ousted current prime minister Saad Hariri; and prompted Israel to put its troops at the northern border on high alert amid fears that the instability could lead to the 2006 war follow-up everyone knows is coming some day. Why exactly did Hezbollah, whose participation in the government, where it controlled a “blocking third” of the cabinet, was if anything increasing its power and prestige, blow the government up?

Thanassis Cambanis, author of a recent book on Hezbollah, argues today that the Party of God’s gambit is driven entirely by its fear of the United Nations tribunal investigating the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri (the current prime minister’s father). The tribunal is expected to implicate Hezbollah’s ally, Syria, as well as Hezbollah itself, when it hands down its indictments, probably imminently.

Writes Cambanis:

Simply put, Hezbollah cannot afford the blow to its popular legitimacy that would occur if it is pinned with the Hariri killing. The group’s power depends on the unconditional backing of its roughly 1 million supporters. Its constituents are the only audience that matters to Hezbollah, which styles itself as sole protector of Arab dignity from humiliation by Israel and the United States.

These supporters will be hard-pressed to understand, much less forgive, their party if it is proved to have killed a leader who was loved by the nation’s Sunni Muslims and also respected by Christians, Druze and even many Shiites, who form Hezbollah’s core support. That is why Hezbollah denies any role in the assassination even though it has unabashedly taken responsibility for destabilizing moves like setting off the 2006 war with Israel or pushing Lebanon to the brink of civil war in 2008.

How Hariri responds is important: Cambanis advises him to stand firm. But he also predicts, “Hezbollah is likely to emerge the end winner because it is willing to sacrifice the Lebanese state to maintain its standing in the Middle East and its perpetual war against Israel.” Which, as far as Israel is concerned (to say nothing of the Lebanese people), wouldn’t be great news.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.

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