June 11, 2009
Number 06/09 #04
This Updates features analysis of the weekend Lebanese election resuts , which saw the government pro-western governing coalition improve its position moderately vis-a-vis the Hezbollah-led opposition, contrary to the predictions of many.
First up , academic analyst and recent AIJAC visitor to Australia Dr. Jonathan Spyer looks at the reasons the results came out the way they did, which is primarily connected with the Christian vote in Lebanon’s complex sectarian political system. He says that the Christian faction of General Michel Aoun, who has allied himself with Hezbollah, did particularly poorly, and offers a number of reasons why this was the case. Spyer says the exact political implications of the result may take time to work out in terms of Hezbollah’s current veto over all Lebanese government, decisions, but in any case, the outcome has “no bearing on the wider issue of Hezbollah’s possession of an independent military capacity, and its consequent ability to pursue an independent foreign and military policy.” For Spyer’s complete analysis, CLICK HERE. Also analysing the result in detail is Charles Chuman, editor of the Lebanese Political Journal.
Next up, Dr. Eyal Zisser, one of Israel’s top academic expert on Syria and Lebanon, argues the result is very good news for the regional balance of power, even if the effect on Lebanon is likely to be fairly small. He says that the Arab world will be celebrating that the Iranian-led bloc failed to democratically take power in Lebanon, and this will make it easier to form a regional coalition to counter Iran, Syria and their allies. However, he acknowledges the result will not affect Hezbollah’s current ability to threaten Israel independently, and may even prompt the Iranian-Syrian camp to look to non-democratic, violent means to add Lebanon to their bloc. For his full discussion, CLICK HERE. Also commenting on the regional good news represented by this election was the Wall Street Journal.
Finally, roving journalist and blogger Michael Totten reports some interpretation of the results from his sources in Lebanon. He looks at how US policy may have affected the result, and how Washington officials reacted to it. But he is particularly good with his citation of Lebanese political officials from the ruling March 14 coalition on how they see their place in the world, and the ongoing influence of Hezbollah. Their conclusions with regard to the last are pretty pessimistic. To read the whole piece, CLICK HERE. Further, Ami Issacharoff of Haaretz agrees with Totten that Hezbollah’s dominant position in Lebanon was unaffected by this election as does an editorial in the Jerusalem Post, which argues that whatever the results mean for the region, they offer no joy for Lebanon.
Readers may also be interested in:
- An interesting debate among the academics at MESH (Middle East Strategy at Harvard) concerning the role of US foreign policy in producing the result that occurred in Lebanon. Asking Lebanese sources about the argument that the result can be tied to US President Obama’s Cairo speech is foreign policy analyst Max Boot. Marty Peretz of the New Republic also comments on this issue.
- Recent visitor to Australia Matthew Levitt of the Washington Institute offers an interesting run-down of Hezbollah’s foreign terrorist network and history.
- Some relevant recent statements by figures of the winning Lebanese coalition in recent weeks here, here, and here. But particularly have a look at this statement by Christian leader Sami Gemayel, who argues that all of Lebanon’s main problems can be traced to the fact that it has been unwillingly dragged into the conflict with Israel.
- North Korea threatens to use its nuclear weapons for offensive purposes against anyone who touches the country’s “dignity”.
- Max Boot argues that the US government is getting tough on North Korea, recognising that past diplomatic efforts have not worked, but appears to have a blind spot with respect to Iran. Some ideas for dealing with the North Korean nuclear challenge come from Henry Kissinger and American strategic studies academic Edward Luttwak.
- Much is being written about the European Union elections which saw strong gains by far-right groups including the British National Party and Hungary’s Jobbik party – good examples come from the always interesting David Pryce-Jones, British author Anne Applebaum, and the Jerusalem Post.
- Meanwhile, Britain’s Community Security Trust, a top notch organisation monitoring various forms of extremism has a new blog, in which, among other things, the EU election results are analysed.
- Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is reportedly preparing a major speech on the peace process for this Sunday. Meanwhile, Israel has lifted more roadblocks in the West Bank.
- Israel thwarts a major terrorist attack attempt on the Gaza border.
THE JERUSALEM POST, Jun. 8, 2009
It is now clear that the pro-Western March 14 alliance has won an unexpected victory in parliamentary elections in Lebanon, and senior sources in the Hizbullah-led March 8 bloc have conceded defeat in statements to Western reporters.
Contrary to most forecasts, the vote appears to have produced a legislature very similar in representation to the one that preceded it.
March 14 is thought to have won 69 or 70 seats in the 128-member parliament. If one adds the one or two independent, pro-March 14 MPs to the total, the movement now controls around 71 seats. In the outgoing parliament, they controlled 70.
What were the factors that led to March 8/Hizbullah being upset, and what implications do the results have for stability in Lebanon and for Israel?
Most importantly, the results represent a defeat for the party of former general Michel Aoun. Aoun’s Free Democratic Party is the Christian element in the Hizbullah-led March 8 bloc. Aoun, who once led an anti-Syrian rebellion, is now a firm member of the pro-Syrian alliance in Lebanon.
The focus in these elections was the Christian community, because the allegiances of the Druse, Sunni and Shi’ite Lebanese were clear and predictable. The Sunnis and Druse overwhelmingly backed the pro-Western March 14, while the Shi’ites – their loyalties divided between Hizbullah and the pro-Syrian Amal movement, were almost exclusively aligned with March 8. As a result, around 100 of the 128 seats in parliament were effectively allocated in advance.
The Christians, however, were divided. Aoun expected that his personal standing and his strong showing in 2005 would allow his party to sweep the board in Christian areas. The pro-March 14 Christians – the Lebanese Forces Party of Dr. Samir Geagea and the Phalange – were widely disregarded.
Though the emergence of a number of “independent” Christian candidates in the weeks prior to the elections had led to rumors of a possible upset, it appears that the Christians affiliated with March 14 performed surprisingly well, though without entirely eclipsing Aoun.
March 14 swept the board in the symbolically important Beirut 1 District, which contains five seats. March 14 also won the seats of Batroun (where a Lebanese Forces candidate unseated Michel Aoun’s son-in-law) Koura, Bsharreh and Tripoli.
Why did so many Christian Lebanese turn against Aoun and March 8?
Many Lebanese analysts consider that fears in the community over the consequences of a drift further toward the Iranian and Syrian regional bloc played an important part. In this regard, the events of May 2008, when Hizbullah sent its forces onto the streets of Beirut, were seen as playing a role.
A recent speech by Hassan Nasrallah, in which he described those May events as a “glorious day” for the “resistance” and warned March 14 against any future interference with Hezbollah’s independent military infrastructure, may well have helped to concentrate Christian minds regarding the danger represented by Hizbullah.
Some have also suggested that the memory of the destructive 2006 war with Israel, sparked by a Hizbullah kidnapping of IDF soldiers and shelling of Israeli communities in the North, also played its part.
The election results mean that March 14 will be the dominant factor in the governing coalition which will now be formed. However, the opposition will also be represented in the new government. Negotiations over the make-up and nature of the coalition are likely to be protracted.
Lebanese analysts are pointing to the issue of the opposition’s demand for a “blocking third” of cabinet seats as a possible source of strife.
The veto was granted to Hizbullah and its allies in the Doha negotiations which followed the May fighting last year. However, March 14 leader Sa’ad Hariri has said that he is not interested in renewing the veto arrangement.
This is likely to prove a central issue in negotiations. Given Hezbollah’s and its allies’ and patrons’ proven capacity for using violence to reinforce their arguments, the potential for further strife remains real.
It is important to remember that while the averting of an electoral victory for the pro-Iranian, pro-Syrian bloc is significant, it has no bearing on the wider issue of Hezbollah’s possession of an independent military capacity, and its consequent ability to pursue an independent foreign and military policy.
Hizbullah would certainly have preferred the March 8 bloc it leads to have performed better. But the movement itself fielded only 11 candidates. Beyond this, it was content to concede the Shi’ite representation to the allied Amal movement.
For Hizbullah and its Iranian patron, the key interest at present is the rebuilding and expansion of its independent military capacity, and the shadow state which has emerged around it.
Hizbullah successfully defended the borders of this shadow state from internal interference in May 2008. Iran invested heavily in repairing it after the war of 2006, and its guns remain pointed at Israel.
So amid the justified relief at the setback suffered by the pro-Iranian bloc in the vote, it should be borne in mind that the results represent a continuation of the problematic preelection reality, rather than any major transformation.
The writer is a senior researcher at the Global Research in International Affairs Center, IDC, Herzliya.
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Pro-western camp’s elections win in Lebanon to provide Obama with backwind
Shots could be heard throughout the night on the streets of western Beirut, the Sunni stronghold in Lebanon. As opposed to the night of May 8th, 2008, when Hizbullah forcefully took over the western section of the Lebanese capital in order to force its veto demand on the government, this time around it was the supporters of the pro-Western camp who hit the streets to celebrate their victory.
The polls published in Lebanon showed a tight race and a reasonable chance for a Hizbullah victory in the parliamentary elections. However, once polling stations opened it turned out that in Lebanon too the pollsters were wrong, or deceptive, and the “March 14 camp” headed by the Sunni Saad al-Hariri and the Druze Walid Jumblatt won.
However, celebrations were not limited to Lebanon. It appears that across the Middle East, an all-clear siren was sounded this morning – from Beirut to Jerusalem, and from Riyadh to Cairo. The camp of the “bad guys,” inspired by Iran, failed in its attempt to democratically take power in Lebanon. And so, four days after US President Barack Obama invited residents of the region to walk with him on a new path of moderation, reconciliation, peace, and mostly friendship with America – Lebanese voters complied with him and granted a victory, even if by points, to the pro-Western camp.
Despite the results, Lebanon remains a divided country, torn between two camps that are almost equal in size: The Sunni-Druze camp, and the Shiite camp, which is reinforced by large parts of the Maronite sect. In this context it appears that the big losers in the elections are the Maronites, who used to control the State, and have now become the followers of Hizbullah – lacking any power or status, and safely in Nasrallah’s pocket from now on.
Lebanon’s election results highlight the increasing gap between demography – the fact that the Shiites are the largest sect in the country – and the political system. The division of seats in parliament is anachronistic, and the Shiites are only given about 15% of all seats (27 out of 128) even though they make up 30-40% of the population.
Results make no difference for Israel
It is difficult to assume that the Shiites, under Hizbullah’s leadership, will accept such reality over time, and their conclusion in the wake of the elections may be that their hope to change Lebanon’s system via democratic means had failed. From here it may be a short distance to another forceful Hizbullah attempt to change Lebanon’s rules of play.
For Israel, the election results make no difference. After all, Hizbullah will continue to do whatever it wishes in Lebanon, particularly in respect to building its military force vis-à-vis the IDF. The fact that Lebanon was ruled by a pro-Western government headed by Fouad Siniora in the past four years did not prevent the organization from embarking on a war with Israel in July 2006, and did not stop the group from arming itself in the wake of the war with an arsenal of nearly 50,000 missiles, which cover most of Israel’s territory.
The challenges to be faced by Israel in the near future would therefore be to convince Western governments, headed by the US, not to rush to hug Hariri and Jumblatt while ignoring the “Hizbullah state,” which Lebanese politicians are willing to reconcile themselves to for lack of other choice.
And still, today we see the dawn of a new day in Lebanon, and in fact across the entire Middle East. The election results in Lebanon are good news for our region. The Iranian offensive led by Hizbullah with Syria’s encouragement had been curbed. Lebanese voters provided Barack Obama with a nice gift and a backwind, making it easier for him to form a regional coalition based on the effort to curb Iran and its allies – Syria, Hizbullah, and Hamas.
Prof. Eyal Zisser heads the Dayan Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv University
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Michael J. Totten
Commentary “Contentions” 06.10.2009 – 10:57 AM
Lebanese voters went to the polls on Sunday and gave Hezbollah an unexpected shellacking. The anti-Syrian “March 14” coalition led by Saad Hariri’s Future Movement won 71 seats in the parliament. The Hezbollah-led “March 8” bloc won 57. Hezbollah itself only has ten seats in Beirut out of 128.
Most observers and analysts were surprised by the March 14 victory, but I could never figure out where Hezbollah’s additional support was supposedly coming from. Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah strapped a suicide bomb vest around his own country when he picked a fight with Israel in 2006. Mounting an armed assault against the capital, as he did last May, was no way to win the hearts and minds of new voters. Until recently, I was certain Hezbollah and its allies had no chance of winning, but they grew so sure of their own propaganda that they managed to persuade even their enemies that they might come out on top. The March 14 side was rattled, and some of their analysts convinced even me that Hezbollah might pull it off. But Hezbollah lost, and Nasrallah conceded.
Syrian dictator Bashar Assad also lost big when his most powerful proxy in Lebanon was rejected by the majority. “So much for Bashar’s ‘imaginary majority,’” wrote Lebanese political analyst Tony Badran, “in spite of all his terrorism, bombing, murder, violence, intimidation, coup attempts and information warfare over the last four years.”
“Sanity prevailed,” an unnamed Obama Administration official said after the results were made official. Indeed, it did. The press may be getting slightly carried away with crediting President Barack Obama’s Cairo speech for the March 14 victory, but Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Beirut recently and said everything that needed to be said before voters went to the polls. Biden rightly warned the Lebanese that American aid to their government and military would be reevaluated if the Hezbollah-led coalition emerged victorious.
The president himself said the United States will “continue to support a sovereign and independent Lebanon, committed to peace, including the full implementation of all United Nations Security Council Resolutions.” Everyone in Lebanon knows exactly what this means. A “sovereign and independent” Lebanon cannot be a vassal of Syria and Iran. “Committed to peace” is a slap against Hezbollah’s interminable armed “resistance” against Israel. The relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions demand the disarmament of every militia in Lebanon – including Hezbollah and those in the Palestinian refugee camps.
Some leftists are kvetching about Obama’s explicitly anti-Hezbollah position. I was slightly worried myself about other potential aspects of the president’s Lebanon policy before it developed, but he deserves support here from conservatives as well as from Democrats who understand that the United States can’t support a terrorist army that says, “Death to America is a policy, a strategy, and a vision.”
Hezbollah, though, has not been banished to the political wilderness, just as the March 14 movement wouldn’t have rolled over and died had it lost. The unstable status quo that produced three wars in the last three years is still in place. Michael Young, opinion page editor of Beirut’s Daily Star, put it this way in a pre-election analysis: “If the opposition wins, Lebanon will indeed enter into a period of long instability. If there is a substantial victory by the March 14 forces, in alliance with so-called independent candidates, you’ll also have a period of instability.”
An election can’t change what Lebanon is. It remains a country with a hybrid identity pulled in two directions at once. A few months ago I spoke to Salim al-Sayegh, Vice President of the Kataeb Party, and asked him what he and his pro-Western comrades would do if Hezbollah won. “We will never accept an identity change,” he told me. “We are all inheritors not only of the Persian Empire and the Arab world. We are also children of the Roman Empire, of the Western tradition.”
Nasrallah says the disarmament of his army is out of the question, and for now he’s right. Hezbollah is more than just a political party, a militia, and a terrorist organization. It is, in effect if not name, the Mediterranean branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. As Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt told me the first time I met him, “the solution is not in Lebanon. The solution is in Tehran.”
I spoke with Jumblatt again recently in his fortress atop Lebanon’s mountains. “Is there any realistic way,” I said, “of either disarming Hezbollah or integrating it within the state and the army? Or will this problem go on and on and on?”
“It will,” he said, “go on and on.”