Where does Hezbollah go from here?

TAIBE, Lebanon — What’s next for the Party of God?

We might expect a period of cooler rhetoric, but barring a tectonic shift in regional power, Hezbollah will probably keep its formidable arsenal cocked and ready to fight Israel and anyone who threatens to disarm its very powerful militia.

And though American and Israeli boosters of Lebanon’s governing coalition saw a victory for the West in the recent Lebanese election results, they ought to remember that Hezbollah’s power and legitimacy remain undiminished. Even Hezbollah’s most staunchly pro-American rivals have publicly disavowed any further efforts to disarm Hezbollah.

That’s not to say that Hezbollah doesn’t face major challenges. Hezbollah had predicted victory for its coalition in Lebanon’s elections. It dismissed President Barack Obama’s address to the Muslim world as mere words. Its powerful militia depends almost entirely on Iranian largesse. Despite Iran’s own presidential elections, Tehran could bargain away its support for Hezbollah in talks with the West, and Lebanon’s election left Hezbollah and its rivals with essentially the same share of power they had in the previous parliament.

So it’s no surprise that Hassan Nasrallah’s militant Shiite party assumed a conciliatory tone after Lebanon voted for a new parliament on June 7. Nasrallah urged his supporters to accept the results of the vote, even as he pointed to its flaws, including a vote-buying and a historically skewed system built on sectarian gerrymandering.

Lost in the declarations of victory and the political maneuvers of the defeated are some important realities that should interest anyone paying close attention to the “Resistance Axis” that includes Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas:

  • Hezbollah and its allies ended up with almost the same number of seats in parliament as they did in 2005 and are likely to win control of the same number of government ministries, belying any claims that the tide of support has turned against the Lebanese Resistance.
  • In the popular vote Hezbollah and its allies unequivocally won, with more than 50 percent of the total ballots. Only about 46 percent cast their votes for the pro-Western March 14 group. It is only Lebanon’s anachronistic sectarian electoral rules that gave America’s preferred coalition a parliamentary majority.
  • Finally, Hezbollah draws its veto power over Lebanon from its autonomous militia, which appears far stronger than the Lebanese state’s official military, and from the vast secret budget it gets from Iran. Sure Hezbollah wanted an electoral victory, but its stranglehold over Lebanese politics never depended on the size of its parliamentary delegation, and it doesn’t now.

Ali Fayyad, one of Hezbollah’s newly elected members of parliament, summed up his party’s new approach. Essentially the position is: Hands off our weapons; everything else is negotiable. In a lengthy interview at his country house on the Israeli border, while guests smoked waterpipes and munched on walnut-filled cookies on his terrace, the veteran leader of Hezbollah’s think tank outlined a careful two-pronged platform for Hezbollah in the “new political era.” Hezbollah’s commitment to armed resistance against Israel would not waver in the least, Fayyad said, but the party needed to work harder to refine its wider political appeal.

“Hezbollah has taken a decision to improve its foreign relationships and foreign ties,” Fayyad said. The party also was ready to make compromises with other Lebanese parties on the rest of its platform, especially its quest to reform Lebanon’s sectarian political system and stand — at least symbolically — against corruption.

“If we want to achieve our goals, we must operate in reality,” said Fayyad, who himself represents a moderated image of Hezbollah — the trilingual academic comfortable bantering in French and English with foreigners. He wears tailored, monogrammed dress shirts, and has spent three short sabbaticals at Oxford University in recent years. His children speak French and English, and several of his siblings teach at university.

Hezbollah’s parliamentary slate this year represents a significant turn toward greater engagement. The party’s top diplomat, Nawaf Musawi, was also promoted to parliament, and the new director of international media relations, Ibrahim Mousawi, is fluent in several languages and far more polished and comfortable than his predecessors.

“When we were a small militant group, resistance group, it was different,” Fayyad said. “We are now one of the biggest political parties and players, with strategic effects in half the region.”

The March 14 coalition has been crowing about its victory ever since the results were announced. Supporters set off fireworks for the better part of a week and the prince of the coalition, Saad Hariri, has been positioning to form a government. The win has a couple of warts that should at the least mute any sense of triumph in Washington or Tel Aviv.

Saad Hariri has essentially taken off the table any effort to disarm Hezbollah, capitulating to the Islamic Resistance’s core demand. So long as Lebanon remains at war with Israel, as it has technically since 1948, Hariri’s coalition will no longer try to dismantle Hezbollah’s army.

Hezbollah has never refrained from provoking a crisis when it feels threatened. When it comes to street power, Hezbollah wields more than any of its Lebanese rivals. It also poses the most serious military threat on Israel’s borders. As Fayyad put it, “We live in a world that respects only power and the strong player.”

It will be interesting to learn what Hezbollah hopes to achieve through political dialogue, but it’s best to remember that the Party of God’s first order of business remains armed resistance.

Read Thanassis Cambanis' interview with Ali Fayyad here.