Changing Hezbollah faces real dilemma

Fellows Fall 2004

By Julie Goodman

June 02, 2009

Hezbollah's most vexing dilemma is whether to cling to its successful message of resistance or focus more heavily on the sometimes banal issues of daily life, like food rations and sewage backup.

Transformation into a full-time political party and welfare agency could put constraints on Hezbollah's military, but supporters, it seems, are now more interested in how to fix their leaky plumbing than how to launch a grenade.

"In a community, there are mundane interests and mundane everyday life that doesn't always want wars, jihads and retaliation," said Reinoud Leenders, a Middle East analyst with the International Crisis Group in Lebanon.

"There are people who just want to send their children to school and know that they'll come back at night."

Hezbollah, the fighting militia that arose from the war with Israel, has seats in parliament, but falls short of claiming cabinet posts.

Will Hezbollah ever become just another political party?

Its forecast is murky, Leenders says, since the social services were developed mainly to create support for the resistance.

Pushing a welfare agenda too much would jeopardize the broad support it has built from fighting Israel. Supporters note that Israel takes Hezbollah seriously, more so than other Arab movements.

Hezbollah, condemned as a terrorist group by the United States, has not targeted Americans for years. But such condemnation internationally will impede its progress and ability to be taken seriously as a negotiating body.

For instance, Syria continues to back Hezbollah, hoping to reclaim the Golan Heights it lost to Israel during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. The U.S. has said it would seek a peace settlement with negotiations on the Golan Heights' return — if Syria ceases to back Hezbollah.

Leenders says he sees indications Hezbollah plans to become more involved in the Palestinian cause.

It has pledged support for uprisings and support for militant groups such as Hamas.

"That's dangerous because I don't think the Israelis are going to tolerate it," he said.

Israel is feeling out a tenuous relationship with new Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, successor to Yasser Arafat, who died Nov. 11.

Israel says Hezbollah is a terrorist organization that kills Israelis, smuggles weapons into the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and works closely with extremist groups. Along with Iran, it threatens to undermine recent progress in the region, and will thwart Abbas' attempts to negotiate a peace agreement.

"They are the regional spoiler," said David Siegel, spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington.

Israel does not see a future negotiating body in Hezbollah because it is only a party and not a government, and does not represent the Palestinian cause like the PLO.

William Quandt, a Middle East expert who served on the National Security Council under the Nixon and Carter administrations, said if developments with Arafat's PLO are any indicator, real dialogue between the United States and Hezbollah could take years.

"It took a good part of a decade to go from an under-the-table covert relationship that was limited in its scope to a recognition that — whether you like the PLO or don't like the PLO — if you're going to deal with the Palestinians, you've got to have some channel to it," he said.

"Once the realization sets in ... pressures mount to see if you can make a deal."

One of those initial deals was Arafat's decision to publicly renounce terrorism and recognize Israel's right to exist, Quandt said.

It is not out of the realm of possibility to imagine a similar model for Hezbollah, he said, although the Bush administration's current preoccupation with terrorism and the "near-veto power" it has given to Israel could obstruct that path.

But, he added, the Reagan administration was also very pro-Israel and anti-terrorism, and made the decision to open the dialogue with Arafat.

"It's not impossible, but it takes a lot of effort and you have to believe it's worthwhile."

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