President George W. Bush‘s comments this week on Hizballah were the first public expression of a new understanding between Washington and Paris.
If Hizballah lays down its arms, the president said, it can transform itself into a political party, participate in democratic elections and claim a role in a new Lebanon after Syrian forces leave.
The voice was the voice of George Bush – or perhaps Rice – but the hands were the hands of France’s Jacques Chirac, who has been urging the US administration for at least a month to leave Hizballah to him.
“I have no illusions about Hizballah and know well how deeply it is involved in terrorism in the Middle East and throughout the world,” Chirac told the Americans. “But with all due respect, I know how to handle Hizballah – you don’t. I’ll get Hizballah to disarm, in my own way.”
Deciding to take Chirac up on his offer, Bush threw out a hint that it was worth the Lebanese terrorist group’s while to change its ways for the sake of a political stake in the country’s future.
Chirac also had a message for Israel, whom he advised not to interfere in the French end game in Lebanon.
“Sit quietly with not a word about Lebanon – and especially do not say anything good or bad about Hizballah,” he urged Israeli foreign minister Silvan Shalom, when he visited the Elysee Palace earlier this month. “If you want to see results in Lebanon, just keep quiet.”
Israel also decided to give Chirac some slack.
But it soon dawned on Bush and his advisers that giving the French president his head on Lebanon could be a costly exercise for America. Chirac’s softly-softly approach would not help the US attain its policy goals in Lebanon, especially when there was not the slightest chance of Hizballah laying down arms, as the organization’s leader Hassan Nasrallah confirmed at the top of his voice a day later.
Bush lost no time in clarifying his position in a White House news conference on Wednesday, March 16.
“We want a thriving democracy in Lebanon,” he said. “I like the idea of people running for office. Hizballah is on the terrorist list for a reason: they have killed Americans in the past and are a violent organization. Hizballah will remain on the terror list.”
Nasrallah will be killed if he disarms
But a truly menacing turn of events came to light in urgent consultations this week at the State Department and the National Security Council, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in Washington. Intelligence reports on the table raised serious doubts about Hizballah leaders being allowed to lay down arms, even nominally, should Syrian forces ultimately leave Lebanon. Within days or even hours of a disarmament decision, Tehran – meaning supreme leader Ali Khamenei in person – will give the nod to Iranian Revolutionary Guards units deployed in the bases of Hizballah’s special forces, which are under the command of super-terrorist Imad Mughniyeh, to stage a revolt within the organization. The two groups would not blink at an order to murder Nasrallah or any other top official advocating disarmament.
In any case, he would not get far. Nearly all of Hizballah’s heavy weaponry, including the bulk of its 11,000 missiles and rockets, is controlled by the Revolutionary Guards, whose officers and sentries hold the keys to the arms depots.
So when Bush calls on Hizballah to lay down arms, the call is referred straight to Tehran – not Beirut.
One of the mysteries of this complicated set-up arises from Hizballah’s sudden espousal of a role in mainstream Lebanese politics. This turnabout is explained by a close look at the situation in the Palestinian territories.
The Palestinian Islamic terrorist group Hamas, under guidance from Iran and Hizballah, has managed to apply to participate in the democratic process without disarming or renouncing any part of its campaign of violent, suicidal terror. To raise false hopes that it was turning over a new, moderate leaf, Hamas ran in a recent poll – capturing a startling 70% of the vote in local council elections – and is preparing to stand in another two: the second municipal ballot on April 18 and the legislative election in July.
Hizballah like Hamas will run for election and stay armed
Hamas is widely predicted to wipe the floor with Mahmoud Abbas‘ ruling Fatah, its hopes boosted by carrying the March 16 student association vote at Hebron University. Hamas took 25 seats to Fatah’s 13.
The hapless Abu Mazen has been forced to publicly welcome Hamas’ participation in the Palestinian democratic process and feebly hope the armed group will transform itself into a political movement.
Hizballah has hundreds of operatives working with Hamas cells in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. They have sent home to Beirut a flood of first-hand reports on the Palestinian group’s techniques for achieving a lead role in the “democratic process” without giving up an iota of its armed strength. Hizballah leaders expect to emulate the Hamas example and participate in Lebanon’s elections in full confidence that their group cannot be forcibly disarmed.
Hizballah’s electoral prospects are as strong as those of Hamas. The armed terrorist group can therefore look forward for the first time to a place in Lebanon’s governing bodies. Its representatives would then have the choice of pressing the new government to legalize Hizballah’s right to bear arms or let it be absorbed in the Lebanese army – again with a glance across into Ramallah. Abbas aims to recruit Hamas gunmen to the unified Palestinian security services rather than dismantling the terror group – that is, if those services ever come to be unified.
The way things are going now, come summer, both the Lebanese Hizballah and the Palestinian Hamas can look forward not only a substantial share in their respective governments but also in their national security forces. They will have attained office by the rules of democracy without renouncing terrorism.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources report that urgent discussions have been underway all week in Washington on how to head off this nightmare scenario without being accused of obstructing the transformation of Hizballah and Hamas into “legitimate” political movements. US officials have asked Paris for a saving formula out of the impasse, so far without results.