On Hizballah and Hamas

Considering the impact of recent "democratizing" events in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine, the contrast between Lebanese and Palestinian public opinion is instructive. Despite awesome obstacles and the threat of civil war, around half the Lebanese are ecstatic about ridding themselves of Syrian occupation and rebuilding their democracy. The other half, led by Hizballah, are eager to set out on a new course of enhanced political influence for Lebanon’s Shi’ite community. While it is not at all clear where Lebanon is heading, there is electricity in the air.

In contrast, despite successful elections and a ceasefire that is holding, few Palestinians seem ecstatic about anything, including even the prospect of ridding themselves of at least a portion of Israeli occupation. Some are cautiously encouraged by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ anti-violence campaign and achievement of a more formalized "calm" with the Islamist organizations, and by his readiness to integrate Hamas into the political system. Others are frightened by the recent steps taken by Abbas, going so far as to liken him to Chadli Ben Jedid, the Algerian leader whose decision to allow the Islamists to run in national elections triggered a prolonged and bloody civil war in Algeria in the 1990s.

Some Palestinians argue that Israel’s disengagement plan–the most dynamic development in the conflict in recent years–is a victory for Palestinian arms. Many others have concluded that it is a plot and a subterfuge designed to shortchange the PA/PLO and isolate it internationally; they see little if any benefit in it for Palestinians. The recent withdrawal from Jericho–a first, cautious step toward IDF withdrawal from all West Bank cities–was greeted with derision by many Palestinians.

The Palestinians seem to feel more left behind by events than encouraged by them.

Where does this leave Israel? In the long term, assuming democratization continues to spread in the Arab world, and particularly in Palestine, and assuming further that US President Bush is serious about rewarding the Arab world for its steps toward democratic reform, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his successors will come under heavy pressure to make the territorial concessions necessary to enable progress toward peace. Meanwhile, in the short term, the recent chain of events in Lebanon and Syria should make it easier for Israel and the PA to continue stabilizing the situation, as reflected in the Cairo agreement to extend the "calm", which quite extraordinarily was accomplished with Syrian participation.

If there is one development in both Lebanon and Palestine that both encapsulates this sense of progress while simultaneously harboring the seeds of potential disaster, it is the prospect of the enhanced political empowerment of radical Islamist movements that have been deeply involved in terrorism. In Lebanon, Hizballah looks poised to move deeper into the political arena, where it seeks to lead Lebanon’s Shi’ites, some 40 percent of the population.

In Palestine, Hamas is now entering the political arena, where many Palestinians believe it could begin to rival Fatah–which is riven by dissent, corruption and tension between the generations–for power. There are some indications that the US, and particularly the European Union, will acquiesce in this process if Hizballah and Hamas manage to distance themselves from their terrorist pasts.

But these movements will not easily abandon their totally negative attitude toward Israel and its very right to exist. Thus their integration into politics, in turn, poses a potentially serious obstacle to the promotion of a peace process, whether with Palestine or Lebanon.

The democratizers in Washington and elsewhere appear to believe that this obstacle can be overcome–that integration of (hopefully) non-violent Islamists is better than endless confrontation with them, and that democracy is the answer–let the chips fall where they may. Accordingly, in addressing the integration of the Arab world’s Shi’ites into mainstream Arab political life, some compliant Sunni Arab leaders engaged in democratization in places like Lebanon and Saudi Arabia (though not in Iraq, where Shi’ites are a majority) apparently accept that enfranchisement of Shi’ites is an acceptable price to pay.

In contrast, Arab pessimists foresee the emergence, with the encouragement of the United States, of a radical Shi’ite arc stretching from Iran via Iraq and Syria to Lebanon, and eventually, through Hamas, engulfing the Palestinian Arabs in its radical mindset. Jordan’s King Abdullah is apparently one of those pessimists, which may explain why he seeks to hasten normalization with Israel as a response to events in Syria and Lebanon. The assassination of Rafik Hariri was, according to advocates of this scenario, designed to eliminate the most effective Sunni opponent of the Shi’ite arc.

The Shi’ite arc vision, though seemingly simplistic and exaggerated, is yet another indication that the anti-democracy forces in Iran, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine are down but by no means out. For Israelis and Palestinians, Lebanon’s proximity to Palestine makes it potentially the most influential front where radical and moderate forces confront one another.