“Ambassadors,” said Hezbollah’s second-in-command Sheikh Naim Qassem over the weekend, “are waiting in line to establish relations with Hezbollah.” Speaking at the launch of the party’s election campaign in the Bekaa, he assured supporters that Hezbollah “has good relations with everybody,” and that if the March 8 coalition of which Hezbollah is part wins the June elections, all countries will maintain normal relations with Lebanon.
Really, Sheikh Naim? Some of Lebanon’s foreign partners might deal with a March 8-led government just as they would with the current one. But Hezbollah is on several global lists of terrorist groups, and there are clear signs that a March 8 victory would change Lebanon’s relations, particularly with the US, dramatically. A drop in international funding and support could affect a fragile country like Lebanon very profoundly.
There are those who would
Some have made it clear they are open-minded about dealing with March 8 and Hezbollah. Yesterday in London, the Foreign Office announced a significant change of policy. Foreign Secretary David Miliband wrote to inform ministers that the UK will have contacts with Hezbollah's political wing. A number of “positive developments,” including Hezbollah’s participation in the cabinet, were noted, and this could indicate that the UK would deal with a March 8-led government just as it would with the current one.
Further, if March 8 wins, it seems that relations with the European Union would stand. EU Foreign Policy Chief Javier Solana said in a Beirut press conference on February 25 that “we will deal with any party that emerges victorious in the elections.” He did not elaborate further, but it is true that the EU does not list Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.
And France, one of Lebanon’s important international champions, has made encouraging noises. Ambassador André Parant told As-Safir that “whatever the election results, France will stay Lebanon’s friend… and it will continue to help this country.” When asked whether he was afraid that international support would stop for Hezbollah as it did for Hamas after its electoral victory in Gaza, Parant said that he did not think the parallel was relevant. A diplomatic source even said that France had pressed hard for Hezbollah not to be included on the EU’s terror list and denied rumors that trade agreements, grants and soft loans agreed on at the Paris III international donor conference for Lebanon in 2007 would be affected by a change of government.
But not everyone agrees with them
The voice from Europe is far from unanimous, and a March 8 government could face problems from a European Parliament that passed a resolution in March 2005 by a vote of 473 to 8 designating Hezbollah as a “terrorist organization” and calling on the EU Council to take “all needed measures to put an end to the terrorist activities of this group.” A March 8 government could stretch relations with countries like Germany, which currently supports Lebanon’s navy forces and helps them monitor the Lebanese borders. Paris III may still stand, but many of its initiatives were conditional on “reform,” which would be unlikely under a March 8 government.
Further, support from Arab countries would likely dwindle under March 8 rule. Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak on February 20 offered military aid to Lebanon to help train and equip the LAF. But the aim of the offer was to reduce Lebanon’s reliance on Iran and Syria for military funding. Especially given Hezbollah’s vehement anti-Egypt rhetoric during January’s Gaza conflict, funding to a ruling party including Syria- and Iran-backed Hezbollah would be unlikely to happen. Saudi Arabia, too, is engaged in a larger regional power struggle pitching it against Syria and Iran. The country has given millions of dollars in aid to Lebanon since 2006, but would have a far less easy relationship with a ruling coalition including Hezbollah.
And sometimes furthest away is closest to home
Looking further west, the noises are not encouraging, and the stakes are high. The US is the biggest foreign financer of the Lebanese military. The country has provided $400 million in foreign military aid since 2005, and has requested $62 million for 2009. But a look at the official budget shows that the justification for the funding is to “counter the remaining Syrian interference in Lebanon” and to further America’s goals, “such as the disarmament of the terrorist organization Hezbollah.” The money, the budget says, “will enhance programs that reduce the ability of Hezbollah to divide the populace and erode support for the current Government.” A governing coalition with Hezbollah members would clearly undermine this rationale for giving cash to Lebanon.
Would cuts in funding be likely if March 8 came to power? Martin Indyk seems to think so. Indyk, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institute, said in December, “if Hezbollah and its allies take control of that state by democratic elections in June next year, what I’ve outlined as the basis for American support for Lebanon will be placed in jeopardy, and we should have no illusions about that… If Hezbollah in effect takes control of the government of Lebanon, it’s hard to imagine how we’re going to be able to continue with our current policy.” Toni Verstandig, who was deputy assistant secretary of Near Eastern Affairs at the State Department during the Clinton administration, was reluctant to speculate on election results but did say, “we are very mindful of Lebanese sovereignty, and those who are not contributing to Lebanese sovereignty…I think we have to question the validity of those players.”
Does Hezbollah = Hamas?
Although the French might see flaws in parallels with Hamas, Jonathan Schanzer sees the analogy as relevant. The author of Hamas vs Fatah: The Struggle for Palestine and former Counterterrorism analyst at the US Treasury said that “this is essentially what happened after the elections in the Palestinian territories. When Hamas won those elections, it really put American foreign policy in a very delicate place. And if we look at what the US did, it essentially moved to isolate Hamas.” Although emphasizing that the US today has a different president with a less hard-line foreign policy, he said that if March 8 were in power, aid to Lebanon would come with “strings attached,” and that “the US would use every aspect of statecraft that it has in its possession to either weaken, sideline or demilitarize” Hezbollah. However, he said, “I don’t think you would see any direct engagement.”
Hezbollah, of course, thrives off anti-Americanism. Perhaps they do not care whether America would support a March 8-led government. But a Lebanon without US support – and without Egyptian and Saudi support – would be a weakened Lebanon, and Qassem’s claim that everyone would maintain normal relations with a March 8 government is far from the whole truth.