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Radicals suffer setback in Lebanon, but remain powerful force

Saad Hariri, seen here with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton at the Beirut gravesite of his slain father in April 2009, led the pro-Western alliance that won Lebanon's election. (U.S. Department of State)

Saad Hariri, seen here with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton at the Beirut gravesite of his slain father in April 2009, led the pro-Western alliance that won Lebanon’s election. (U.S. Department of State)

NEWS ANALYSIS

JERUSALEM (JTA) – The outcome of Sunday’s Lebanese elections, in which the pro-Western alliance led by Saad Hariri eked out a narrow victory over the Hezbollah-led alliance, was welcomed in Israel as a rare piece of good news from the country’s northern neighbor.

The struggle for power between Hariri’s March 14 coalition and the Hezbollah-led March 8 alliance mirrored the regional standoff between pro-Western moderates and pro-Iranian radicals.

Tzachi Hanegbi, chairman of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, hailed it as a "reversal" of the trend toward radicalism. Relative moderates in the Arab world, including Saudi Arabia and Egypt, applauded Sunday’s outcome. The victory may help President Obama in his efforts to build a strong coalition of Middle Eastern moderates against Iran.

A win for the radicals could have posed serious new threats for Israel.

Lebanon’s new political map emerged after the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005. With observers blaming Syria for the killing, Shiite Hezbollah held a huge pro-Syrian demonstration in Beirut on March 8 of that year. This gave birth to the pro-Syrian March 8 alliance comprised of Hezbollah, the Shiite Amal party and Michel Aoun’s Christian Free Patriotic Movement.

A huge counter-demonstration took place on March 14, giving birth to a coalition of Sunni Muslims, Druse and other Christian factions known as the March 14 coalition. Led by the slain politician’s son, Saad, the coalition called for the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon. This precipitated the so-called Cedar Revolution, which forced Syrian troops to leave the country.

Ever since, the fault line in Lebanese politics has run through a sharp pro- and anti-Syria/Iran divide rather than the strict denominational differences of old.

In Sunday’s vote, the March 14 alliance increased its strength slightly, winning 71 seats to 57 for the radicals.

While the outcome of the election is good news for pro-Western moderates, it did little to change the status quo: The split before the vote had been 70-58 in the 128-seat legislature.

Now, much will depend on the kind of government the winning alliance forms.

After Hezbollah’s 2006 war with Israel, tensions between the two alliances reached a fever pitch. Hezbollah called Prime Minister Fuad Siniora a traitor, and the moderates accused Hezbollah of destroying Lebanon.

Just over a year ago, the ruling March 14 alliance formed a national unity coalition with the radicals after a bitter 18-month standoff. In the Doha Agreement, which brought the crisis to an end, Hezbollah won a huge concession: the right to nominate at least one-third of the Cabinet — enough, according to the Lebanese constitution, for a veto on all key decisions.

If there is no similar compromise, a new round of factional fighting in Lebanon cannot be ruled out. Both Hariri and Siniora have made conciliatory approaches to the radicals, but it is not clear whether they are prepared to give Hezbollah the veto power it enjoyed before the elections.

If there is no national unity government, the situation easily could deteriorate into the kind of internal unrest that led to the Hariri assassination. Hezbollah already has warned the May 14 alliance not to even think of trying to disarm its militia.

Turnout in the election surpassed 70 percent, with both alliances viewing it as a crucial vote. The March 14 group feared a Hezbollah victory could destroy its free lifestyle through Tehran-like religious coercion and war with Israel. The March 8 alliance and their Iranian backers saw a rare opportunity for wresting control of the Lebanese state. Both sides spent millions of dollars.

The March 14 coalition flew in planeloads of Lebanese emigres; the March 8 alliance bused in fervent supporters from Syria. Saudi Arabia and Hariri himself helped to bankroll March 14, while Iran funded March 8. Both sides accused the other of heavy vote buying.

Had Hezbollah won, the consequences for the region as a whole would have been far-reaching. It would have solidified the Shiite Crescent — a region of Shiite control stretching from Shiite Iran through Iraq and across Iranian-allied Syria to Lebanon. Iran would be seen as having an outpost on Israel’s doorstep with a foothold on the Mediterranean.

Gulf States and others might have seen Iran as the ascendant power of the future and joined its orbit, as Qatar already has. Moreover, with Hezbollah in power in Beirut, the cease-fire regime in the south — established by U.N. Resolution 1701, which brought the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war to an end — might have collapsed.

As it is, with more than 40,000 rockets and missiles, Hezbollah poses a serious threat to Israel. For the three years since the 2006 war, the deterrent balance established by the Israel Defense Forces has held. Hezbollah did not fire a single rocket in support of Hamas during the December-January war. The IDF assessment is that the rockets are being held in reserve for just one purpose: to deter Israel from attacking Iran’s nuclear installations.

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