Lebanon’s political crisis escalated this weekend, with hundreds of civilians wounded in running street battles against security forces. The chaos will increase the Lebanese Hezbollah’s temptation to lash out at Israel to unify the nation against a common enemy.
At the source of tensions here is a months-long political and economic crisis.
Infuriated by decades of corruption and mismanagement, and an Iranian-engineered political system that prioritizes sectarian cronyism over efficient public services, the Lebanese people are demanding wholesale reform. But the political class won’t give it to them. Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s pro-Western Future Movement is sympathetic to reform, but Hariri is a weak and uncertain leader. He lacks the tenacity to challenge Hezbollah. And that’s the key here.
Built around a mixture of patronage and thuggery, Hezbollah and its Amal ally have reinforced the rot at the heart of Beirut politics. With the support of its March 8 alliance partner, President Michel Aoun and his Free Patriotic Movement party, Hezbollah has been able to veto or water down any reform plans. Instead, Hezbollah has thrown its support behind new Prime Minister-designate Hassan Diab. Their hope is that Diab’s token reforms might end the protests and attract much-needed international loans. But it hasn’t worked. Diab is rightly seen by protesters as a tool of the elites. They’re demanding a technocratic government beyond the reach of the elites, and they’re refusing to accept anything but that.
The problem for Hezbollah is that the larger these protests become and the longer they continue, the greater threat Lebanon’s political class faces. Energy and water shortages are increasing, banks are restricting withdrawals, and the nation’s finances are near to imploding. And led by the United States and France, the international community is refusing to provide a financial lifeline unless reform comes first.
In turn, Hezbollah must look for alternate means of diluting the protest energy. Lashing out at Israel is one obvious area it will consider. Hezbollah recalls how its 2006 war with Israel unified Lebanese from across the sectarian spectrum behind the group’s national resistance narrative. Hezbollah has thousands of rockets with which to target Israel, so its threat cannot be considered idle. And it’s not simply Israel in the crosshairs here. With Ayatollah Ali Khamenei determined to impose some blood price on America for its killing of Qassem Soleimani, Hezbollah may also target American interests.
Hopefully, Hezbollah will hesitate in the face of Israel’s formidable military power and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s interest in retaining his security credentials before the March 2 elections. But it may not. We should pay close heed to what’s happening in Beirut. It portends broader developments beyond Lebanon’s borders.