Imad who?

As Hezbollah’s official funeral of Imad Mughniyah unfolded yesterday—Hezbollah’s leader eulogizied him over a coffin decked in Hezbollah’s flag—it was useful to recall the party’s denial of his very existence over all these many years. Mention of his name to Hezbollah officials would draw a blank stare or blanket denial. “Hezbollah professes no knowledge of the man,” the New York Times reported in 2002. A journalist who interviewed a top Hezbollah official and parliamentary deputy, Abdullah Kassir, once asked him if he knew Mughniyah. “Kassir flashed a blistering look and responded curtly, ‘I have no answer.’”

Hezbollah’s leader, Hasan Nasrallah, followed a double tack: he would defend “freedom fighter” Mughniyah, but not acknowledge him. “The American accusations against Mughnieh are mere accusations,” he was quoted as saying. “Can they provide evidence to condemn Imad Mughnieh? They launch accusations as if they are given facts.” But when pressed, Nasrallah “refused to reveal whether Mughnieh has a role in Hizbullah.” Of course.

Another American academic wrote this precious paragraph in her book on Hezbollah:

For its part, Hezbollah has consistently denied the existence of any relationship with Mughniyeh, direct or indirect. As a matter of record, from the time of the party’s inception, all Hezbollah officials have emphatically denied ever knowing a person by the name of Imad Mughniyeh. The apparent avoidance of this issue is clear in an answer to a recent question about the party’s relationship with Mughniyeh. The response of a Hezbollah senior official was that Mughniyeh had never held a position in their organization, and was, in Deputy Secretary General Naim al-Qassim’s words, ‘only a name’.

The same author then spends a few embarrassing pages agonizing over this question: “Was Mughniyeh a member of Hezbollah?”

Now that Nasrallah’s eulogy has placed Mughniyah officially in the pantheon of Hezbollah’s greatest martyrs (with Abbas al-Musawi and Raghib Harb), this question looks absurd. That it ever arose is a testament to the discipline of Hezbollah in sticking to lies that serve its interests. One of its paramount interests is concealing from scrutiny that apparatus of terror that Mughniyah spent his life building. Hiding the clandestine branch protects it from Hezbollah’s enemies, and makes it easier to sell the movement to useful idiots in the West, who insist that the movement hasn’t done any terror in years, and maybe never did any at all. They produce statements of such mind-boggling gullibility that one can easily imagine Mughniyah chuckling to himself on reading them. The “literature” is rife with claims that Mughniyah didn’t really belong to Hezbollah, or he answered to Iran, or he had his own agenda—anything to dissociate his terrorist acts from the party.

The truth is (and always has been) a simple one. Hezbollah is many things, but it has always included within it a clandestine terrorist branch, and it probably always will. Indeed, Nasrallah’s threat in his eulogy—to commence an “open war” with Israel outside the Israel-Lebanon theater—alludes to the “global reach” that Mughniyah helped to build.

If Hezbollah were absolutely determined to distance itself from the terror tag, it wouldn’t have accorded an official send-off to a most-wanted terrorist. Nor would its leader have stood over his coffin and threatened “open war.” Assassinations of terrorists can boomerang, and so might this one. But it’s already had the one merit of exposing the core of Hezbollah that lies deep beneath the schools, the hospitals, and all the other gimmicks the party uses to get support and pass in polite company. On page one of the International Herald Tribune yesterday, there were photographs of the aftermath of the Beirut bombing of the U.S. Marines barracks (1983), the hijacked TWA Flight 847 (1985), and the ruins of Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia (1996). That’s Hezbollah too, and that was Imad Mughniyah—and they were one.

Update: For more reading on “expert” gullibility regarding Mughniyah and Hezbollah, see this chapter-and-verse dissection by Tony Badran, and this analysis by Michael Young.

The Israeli-Islamist War

The following essay by Martin Kramer appears in the Occasional Paper Series of the Middle East Program, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Fall 2006.

Who won the summer war between Israel and Hizbullah?

Right after the ceasefire, Hizbullah and its Iranian patrons declared the war a “divine victory,” and the Economist concurred, running this headline across its cover: “Nasrallah Wins the War.” Israel sank into a funk of self-recrimination.

But a few weeks later, Hizbullah leader Hasan Nasrallah admitted that if he had it to do again, he would have avoided provoking Israel in the first place. Now it was the turn of Israel’s government to claim victory. Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer chimed in, claiming that Hizbullah “was seriously set back by the war,” and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman called it a “devastating defeat”—for Hizbullah.

The question of who got the upper hand will remain contested. But the debate over who won and who lost obscures the deeper significance of the summer war. It marks the beginning of the third stage in the conflict over Israel.

An evolving conflict
In the first stage, from Israel’s creation in 1948 through 1973, rejection of Israel dressed itself as pan-Arab nationalism. In the classic Arab-Israeli conflict, Arab states formed alliances in the name of Arab unity, with the aim of isolating Israel and building an Arab coalition that could wage war on two or more fronts.

The fatal flaw of this strategy lay in the weakness of pan-Arabism itself. The failure to coordinate led Arab states to humiliating defeats in the multi-front Arab-Israeli wars of 1948 and 1967. In 1973, Egypt and Syria launched a coordinated Arab assault on Israel, with partial success. But Egypt then opted out of the Arab collective by reaching a separate peace with Israel in 1979, and the Arab-Israeli conflict came to an end.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict took its place. In this second stage, the Palestine Liberation Organization used a mix of politics and “armed struggle” to open up new fronts against Israel—in Jordan and Lebanon in the heyday of the fedayeen, in the West Bank and Gaza in the first intifada, and in Israel proper in the second.

But the Palestinian struggle also stalled as the PLO grew sclerotic, inefficient, and corrupt. Its transformation into the ramshackle Palestinian Authority only amplified its weaknesses. The death of its leader Yasir Arafat in 2004 effectively marked the end of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In the third and present stage, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been superseded by the Israeli-Islamist conflict.

There had always been an Islamist component to the “resistance” against Israel, but it had traditionally played a supporting role, first to the Arab states, and then to the PLO. It was Ayatollah Khomeini, leader of the Islamist revolution in Iran, who pioneered an entirely different vision of the role Islamism should play opposite Israel.

Khomeini rejected the view that Israel had become a fait accompli and thereby entitled a place in the region. He believed that Islam had the power to call forth the sacrifice and discipline needed to deny legitimacy to Israel and ultimately defeat it.

To achieve that goal, Islamists could not rest content with a supporting role; they had to push their way to the front. By establishing Hizbullah as an armed vanguard in Lebanon, Khomeini sought to open a new Islamist front against Israel, independent of weak Arab states and the ineffective PLO.

In the 1990s, Islamist movements gained ground across the Middle East. A Palestinian Islamist movement, Hamas, filled the vacuum left by the PLO’s incompetence. Hizbullah waged a successful campaign to end the Israeli occupation of south Lebanon. But while Islamists rejected peace with Israel and called for “resistance,” they could not challenge the prerogative of the Arab states and the PLO to make grand strategy toward Israel.

That is, until this past year.

The Islamist moment
Two developments have put the Islamists in the driver’s seat. First, Palestinian elections last winter carried Hamas to power in the West Bank and Gaza. Hamas has regarded the elections as a mandate not merely to substitute good government for PLO corruption, but to bend Palestinian strategy to the Islamist vision of gradual attrition of Israel.

Second, Iran’s nuclear drive under President Ahmadinejad has revitalized the idea that Israel can be confronted on the external front.

The possible combination of Iranian nukes, Hizbullah rockets, and Hamas “resistance” has electrified the Arab-Muslim world. Might the forces of Islamism, acting in concert, achieve the victory that eluded Arab states and the PLO? Might they make it possible, once more, to wage a multi-front offensive against Israel? Might an Islamist coalition achieve greater success, by tapping the self-sacrificial spirit of Islam?

This summer brought the Islamist coalition into play against Israel in a multi-front war for the first time. It was not the war Iran would have chosen: Iranian strategy would have deployed the coalition at a moment of Iran’s own choosing, perhaps closer to the make-or-break point in Tehran’s nuclear plans. But Israel preferred to meet the challenge early, launching a preemptive war against Hizbullah’s missiles, rockets, and infrastructure.

Paradoxically, Israel was not fully prepared for the war it launched; Hizbullah, surprised by the outbreak of war, was nevertheless ready for it. The media then hyped those analysts who drew extravagant conclusions from Israel’s hesitant performance. Viewers of one American network could hear a gushing consultant declare: “Hizbullah is a powerhouse…. Hizbullah delivers the goods…. Hizbullah has proven its muscles…. Israel is a paper tiger after all…. The rules of the Arab-Israeli conflict will have changed for good.” Of course, it would be easy to make the opposite case, beginning with the new rules in Lebanon that constrain Hizbullah.

Strengths and weaknesses
The verdict is still out—this has been the cautious refrain of the most serious analysts. But the war does offer some glimpse into the possible character of the Israeli-Islamist conflict, by showing the intrinsic strength and weaknesses of the Islamist coalition.

The Islamist coalition is strong in areas of ideological discipline and leadership authority. The ideology purports to be “authentic,” and efficiently mobilizes pent-up resentments against Israel and the West. The leaders personify a spirit of defiance that is overvalued in their societies, and they command nearly total obedience. Training is exacting; everyone follows orders; no one surrenders.

The Islamist coalition also brings together a flexible mix of assets, comprised as it is of a state actor (Iran), a quasi-state actor (Hamas), and a sub-state actor (Hizbullah). They have developed innovative weapons systems, from suicide bombings to rockets, which go around and under Israel’s conventional military strengths.

And if Iran were to acquire missile-launched nuclear weapons, they would transform Israel’s small size from an advantage (short lines of defense and supply) into a liability (total vulnerability to one strike). An Iranian nuclear weapon could transform the Israeli-Islamist conflict into a much more dangerous game, in which periodic nuclear-alert crises could bring about the economic, political, and demographic attrition of Israel.

But the Islamist coalition also has weaknesses. First, its backbone is Shiite. Some Sunnis, including Islamists, see the coalition as a threat to traditional Sunni primacy, as much as it is a threat to Israel. Saudi Arabia, in particular, has mobilized against the Iranian-led coalition, which makes it more difficult for the coalition to keep Sunni Islamists in its orbit. And while the coordination between Iran and Hizbullah is total, Hamas has its own strategy, which reflects its own predicament and the constraints imposed by its Arab patrons.

The other major weakness of the Islamist coalition is its lack of direct access to Israel’s borders. The unmarked turf between Israel and the West Bank has been closed off by Israel’s separation barrier to the detriment of Hamas. In the summer war, Hizbullah lost its exclusive control of Lebanon’s border with Israel, arguably the most significant strategic outcome of the war. Without access to Israel’s borders, the Islamist coalition cannot conduct a sustained war of attrition against Israel. Moreover, if the coalition uses its rocket arsenal (its remaining offensive capability), it effectively licenses Israel to retaliate with devastating force.

Absent nuclear weapons, the Islamist coalition is thus likely to remain blocked, unless and until it includes an Arab state that neighbors Israel. Syria is an obvious candidate for that role, but its present leadership acts as an ally of the coalition, and not a full-fledged member in it. There are Islamist political movements in Egypt and Jordan that would eagerly join the coalition, but they are presently kept at bay by moderate regimes.

Given these limitations, the Israeli-Islamist conflict is still far from defining the “new Middle East.” But it could come to define it, if the United States allows the Islamist coalition to gain more military and political power. If the United States stops Iran’s nuclear drive, and bolsters moderate Arab rulers against their Islamist opponents, the summer of 2006 may be remembered as the first Israeli-Islamist war—and the last. If not, more wars will almost certainly follow.

Kramer on Israel vs. Hezbollah

I am still far from my desk, but I gave an interview on the Israel-Hezbollah war to Haaretz intelligence affairs correspondent Yossi Melman. Here it is:

Why do you think this crisis is happening?

Hezbollah’s hubris has created an opportunity for Israel.

Since Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon, Hezbollah has basked in the illusion that it defeated Israel—that it somehow discovered a path to victory that had eluded Arab governments and the Palestinian movement. It began to puff itself up, as the only force willing and able to stand up to Israel. Hezbollah lost its respect for Israeli power, and began to portray Israel as unable to sustain a protracted conflict.

Nasrallah allowed a personality cult to develop around himself, and Hezbollah marketed him as the only strategic genius in the Arab world. Increasingly, it would seem that the higher echelons in Hezbollah began to believe their own propaganda.

I doubt Hezbollah expected the Israeli reaction to be as swift, extensive and destructive as it has been. Hezbollah probably believed it would score a few points in Arab public opinion by a cross-border operation, and that it would make one more incremental change in the rules of the game.

It was a strategic miscalculation. Hezbollah didn’t internalize changes in the broader strategic climate. The top regional issue today is Iran’s nuclear drive, not the fate of Hamas or the Palestinian issue. If Hezbollah had understood this fully, it would have laid very low until needed by Iran in a mega-crisis with the United States. At that point, its threats against Israel would have been added to the overall deterrent capabilities of Iran, and might have caused the United States to think twice.

Hezbollah apparently didn’t understand this. If Iran was directly involved in the decision, it also shows an erosion of discipline in Iran’s own decision-making process. Iran had nothing to gain from this little adventure, and a lot to lose. It may well be that President Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric is beginning to cloud judgment in Tehran.

In any case, it is in the interests of Israel and the United States to deal with the Hezbollah threat now, and not later in the midst of a far more dangerous crisis over Iran’s nuclear plans. So a war now to degrade Hezbollah is a shared Israel-U.S. interest, which means that Israel can wage it without many constraints.

Hezbollah now finds itself spending all sorts of military assets that were supposed to serve a much more important purpose than freeing a few Lebanese prisoners or winning a few propaganda points. These are assets it probably won’t be able to replenish, and their very use exposes them and makes them vulnerable.

In sum, Hezbollah overplayed its hand, and Israel is taking full advantage of its mistake.

What is the way to end the crisis? And can Israel defeat Hezbollah?

Ending the crisis is obviously not an end in itself. The objective has to be to reduce Hezbollah to a negligible factor in larger calculations, to degrade and deplete its capabilities, to the point where it’s about as significant a constraint as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or Jordan. It will take some time to reverse the years of neglect, and Hezbollah will not allow the halo around it to be smashed without fighting back. But Israel has a U.S. license to take its time now and get it right, and it would be foolish not to use it.

In any event, Israel has no choice. Islamism has come to fill the space that used to be occupied by Arab nationalism in Nasser’s time: an ideology of rejection, resistance and false promise of a Middle East without Israel. Israel’s withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza, whatever their merits, have only fed this Islamism with lore of sacrifice and victory. The Islamists have a narrative, and they think the world conforms to it. The narrative is based on a very partial reading of reality. It has to be defeated, just as Nasser’s narrative had to be defeated. It took the 1967 war to demolish the Arab nationalist/Nasserist narrative. Israel has no choice but to deliver a blow sufficient to destroy the Islamist narrative, in which Hezbollah looms large.

Incredibly, Nasrallah is making the same mistakes as Nasser. By puffing himself up, he isn’t deterring Israel; at this point, he’s only making himself and his movement a bigger and more legitimate target. Hezbollah has become a prisoner of its own myth, which is that at any moment it can go one-on-one against Israel—and win. It can’t, and now is the best opportunity to prove it—to Lebanese Shiites, to all Lebanese and to the rest of the Arab-Muslim world.

At any moment in time, it is Israel that can turn Nasrallah either into a cinder or a shadow figure like Osama bin Laden, reduced to sending defiant missives from some basement or cave. And Israel can scatter the big chiefs of Hezbollah like the United States scattered the Taliban. This has to be the objective—bin Ladenization of Nasrallah, Talibanization of Hezbollah—and it is not beyond reach. Of course, bin Laden and the Taliban still exist, but they aren’t a regional or global factor. That is the objective here as well.

Any number of developments could threaten this scenario. It’s not so much what Hezbollah might do, as what mistakes Israel might make. The most obvious pitfalls are too much ‘collateral damage’ or a reoccupation of part of Lebanon. Either could drain Israeli legitimacy, sap American support and leave Israel isolated. Since this is a new government headed by a new prime minister, it’s impossible to predict whether they will know how to handle the unexpected twists that are inevitable in war.

How popular, influential and strong is Hezbollah in Lebanon?

Lebanon is a divided society. Hezbollah’s power base is limited to the Shiite community, and even there, allegiance is not total.

Hezbollah basked in the admiration of many Lebanese after Israel’s withdrawal, but that aura has been eroded steadily over the past few years. This is because, following Israel’s withdrawal, Hezbollah’s continued ‘resistance’ along the border fell outside the national consensus.

As a result, we have seen more and more political figures in Lebanon criticize Hezbollah. The Nasrallah personality cult has been a way to keep the faithful in line. Not so long ago, Hezbollah thugs took to the streets after a Lebanese television station broadcast a satire of Nasrallah. The mob burned tires and cars. The episode showed that Nasrallah’s moral standing had slipped, and that the movement had been reduced to intimidation to keep up the facade.

The point here is that Hezbollah is no longer the darling of Lebanese nationalism, and its recent conduct has made it increasingly look like something foreign. This is certainly the message that is being sent by leaders of most other factions in the country: that Hezbollah has usurped the power of decision-making on war and peace from the legitimately constituted government, and that it is acting outside the Lebanese national interest. The more Israel intensifies its attacks, the more that criticism is likely to spread—even among Shiites. I do not see the country rallying around Hezbollah.

Do you expect this crisis will tear apart the fragile fabric of Lebanese society?

I don’t know about the society, but I do expect it to tear apart the fragile fiction of Lebanese politics. An independent Lebanon is incompatible with an extra-legal, extra-territorial status for any militia. This fact could be papered over before; now it is exposed for all to see.

Of course, no one faction in Lebanon is in a position to disarm Hezbollah, and neither is the government. Only Shiite opinion can achieve this. So it is up to Israel to demolish Hezbollah’s argument that its arms deter Israel. Israel must demonstrate the opposite: that Hezbollah’s arms invite Israeli attack, especially against Shiites. Only if the Shiites themselves realize this, and only if they become the main source of criticism of Hezbollah’s strategy, will Hezbollah feel compelled to modify it. This will not happen overnight; it could take months or years.

What is certain is that Lebanon is better prepared to confront its devils now than it was 10 or 15 years ago. There is a new generation that does not want to go back to the old days. It is they who will have to come out in the streets to make yet another Cedar Revolution—this time, one in which the Shiites have a predominant role.

In addition to interviewing me, Melman also interviewed a number of other authorities on the military-intelligence side. They include Eliezer (Motti) Tzafrir, Reuven Erlich (who prepared his doctoral dissertation under my guidance), and an unnamed Mossad retiree. The piece is worth reading in its entirety.