• Iraq
  • July 26, 2010
  • 25 minutes read

Are Negotiations With Hezbollah Possible?

Are Negotiations With Hezbollah Possible?

 Some circles have already called for making this decision, foremost among them the Rand Corporation. Considered one of the major think-tanks in the United States, Rand has supported the idea of dialogue with Islamists everywhere, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Persian Gulf, most notably with the Muslim Brotherhood movement in Egypt. Rand sees dialogue as a means to reach moderate channels and weaken the extremist tendencies within Islamist movements.

The appeal therefore, of some influential Americans for dialogue with Hezbollah is not a new factor. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has spoken about the existence of two wings within Hezbollah: a military wing which creates unrest; and a political wing. Such a declaration has different meanings for many. After all, this is the first time that an American administration has made a distinction at such a level. The motives, however, of Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Adviser for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism John Brennan are more transparent when he calls for dialogue. Brennan advocates enrolling Hezbollah in the political process as a means of subduing it: the integration of Islamic movements into political authority is a strategy of encouraging them to submit themselves to it. Brennan insists that this does not represent an original path; indeed, Washington has applied that strategy in its interactions with Islamists in countries such as Somalia, Morocco, and Egypt.

The demand to form moderate Islamic networks took shape immediately after the events of September 11, 2001. The Rand Corporation, whose staff includes many prominent neo-conservatives who were close to the administration of George W. Bush, published later on a report entitled “Building Moderate Muslim Networks” to that effect.

John Brennan himself published a study in the July 2008 edition of the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, “The Conundrum of Iran: Strengthening Moderates without Acquiescing to Belligerence,” in which he outlines the nature of the relationship between Hezbollah and Iran: “Washington ought not to expect now or in the future that Tehran would cut its relationship with Hezbollah in Lebanon. The political and religious ties between the Iranian leaders and Hezbollah are in short deep-rooted to a degree that they are not affected by external pressures, regardless of whether they are from the United States, Israel, or anywhere else.” Brennan goes on to say that “the growing expanse of Hezbollah’s paramilitary, political, and social power appeared most clearly in 2006 when Israel was unable to inflict any strategic harm to Hezbollah, despite launching a large military campaign to accomplish just that.”

The increasing political and military capability of Hezbollah and its relationship with Iran are not all what upset Brennan. The U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations held a hearing on June 8 of this year under the title “Assessing the Strength of Hezbollah.” Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman gave a presentation in which he said that the United States does not see any difference between the military wing and the political wing of Hezbollah that would encourage dialogue, adding in response to a question from Senator Corker (R – TN): “For the current situation, as long as Hezbollah is maintaining a militia, is undertaking activities in the region and beyond that are basically terrorist activities, we are not engaging with them.” Feltman, refusing dialogue with Hezbollah, sees that its power is waning compared with what it had been previously. He finds proof of this by looking at the results of the last parliamentary elections in Lebanon.

In the shadow of this “confused” American attitude as to whether or not to extend bridges to Hezbollah, Ar-Rafidayn addressed this issue with Sayyed Ammar Mousawi, Hezbollah’s International Affairs official; Abdallah Bouhabib, the former Lebanese ambassador to Washington; and Dr. Amr Hamzawy, research director and senior associate of the Middle East Center at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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The line in Washington is to refuse dialogue with Hezbollah. It is unrealistic to bet on a moderate current emerging within Hezbollah.— Amr Hamzawy

Dr. Amr Hamzawy sees that calls for opening a dialogue with Hezbollah make no impact at the U.S. State Department. Corker’s gamble that a moderate current may be built within Hezbollah is devoid of a realistic appraisal of the situation. Hamzawy thinks that Washington is striving to “reduce the harm that it is possible for Hezbollah to produce by its ventures in the Arab-Israeli conflict.”Yet, the status-quo places Hezbollah in the category of terrorist organizations.

Ar-Rafidayn: Ryan Crocker, the former American ambassador to Iraq called for a review of the American interactions with Hezbollah on the basis of opening channels of dialogue with Hezbollah. What is your reading of Crocker coming forward with this new proposal in light of the existence of American views calling for the rejection of engagement with Hezbollah?

Hamzawy: The current American administration does not differ from the last, that of George W. Bush, in the mechanism with which it deals with Hezbollah. Despite the call for dialogue, the established approach is to consider Hezbollah as hostile to American interests because of its connection to the regional agenda of Iran and Syria. In my opinion, the Obama administration is to this very moment far from considering serious dialogue with Hezbollah. The administration disregards the insistence of some in the State Department as to the necessity of communication with Hezbollah, of listening to what this movement has to say. The fundamental issue is that although Washington realizes the centrality of Hezbollah’s role on the Lebanese stage, it believes that political plurality in Lebanon guarantees that this centrality will diminish. America’s dealing with Islamists in Somalia and Iraq is due to their strong presence there; but such a case is not pervasive in Lebanon. Washington views the increasing strength of Hezbollah as neither relaxing nor frightening, and there are a set of internal and regional conditions hampering the movement for dialogue with Hezbollah — conditions which were not present in the Iraq and Somalia case.

Ar-Rafidayn: Can the calls for dialogue with Hezbollah by some U.S. officials be attributed to their realizing that a strategy of inclusion or gradual embrace in dealing with Islamists is important, especially when compared to the U.S. experience in Iraq?

Hamzawy: The United States establishes a difference between Islamist movements that participate in political life, such as the Muslim Brotherhood movement in Egypt, and resistance movements such as Hezbollah and Hamas. It relies on criteria in its engagement with both unarmed and armed groups. For unarmed groups, it looks for those that attempt to integrate (not to be confused with “absorbed”), those who limit their role to that of politics and propaganda while also looking to the West. Such were the yardsticks that the Bush administration applied when it decided on gradualism in integrating the agenda of the Islamists. It sought out those oriented to political work and listened to them. As for the jihadist Islamist movements, Hezbollah among them, Washington works to lessen the damage these movements’ escapades produce in the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The U.S. resorts to strengthening what may be called doves in the face of hawks, without any part of this approach being meant to undo anticipated paths of dialogue in the future.

Ar-Rafidayn: Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Adviser for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism John Brennan claimed that it is important to research ways to reduce the clout of the extremists within Hezbollah so that moderates can emerge. To what extent should Washington gamble that a moderate current, if this expression may be permitted, could emerge within Hezbollah?

Hamzawy: This reading is uninformed and is not based on the facts which distinguish the essence of Hezbollah from, say, that of the Muslim Brotherhood movement in Egypt. It imagines Hezbollah in contexts that are far different from that of Lebanon. It is possible to speak of a moderate current and an extremist current in the case of the Muslim Brotherhood because of the existence of numerous currents among its membership, but this distinction cannot be applied to Hezbollah. Some American calls for research into the internal moderate current within Hezbollah come from a vision disregarding the reality of Lebanon on one hand, and the cohesive nature of Hezbollah as regards to its membership and its ideology on the other.

In my opinion, what Washington applied in Pakistan and Iraq throughout its dialogue with Islamists, with the goal of strengthening moderate currents, cannot be applied to the case of Hezbollah. The second issue is that the United States really tries to employ moderate Islamists, as was the case with the Muslim Brotherhood movement; and with the Taliban movement in Afghanistan in striving to open channels of communication; and with Hamas, in weighing the separation between outer and inner ranks. Yet, the Lebanese situation is different and I do not believe that within Hezbollah there exist cadres or leaders with whom it is possible to establish a moderate current.

Ar-Rafidayn: The opening of a dialogue with Hezbollah requires at the very least undertaking a review of its orientation, especially as to how it relates to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Does the centrality of Hezbollah’s resistance to Israel impede the course of dialogue?

Hamzawy: We are talking about a hypothetical issue that is not forthcoming, postulating a situation in which the laying of conditions for dialogue between the United States and Hezbollah has been completed. It is certain that the Arab-Israeli conflict will represent the most important point of discussion. Washington works to promote a peaceful solution on the basis of removing the conflict from its existing framework. Washington demands that the jihadist movements, among them Hamas, refrain from challenging the peace settlement, telling them, “We do not want you to sign a peace treaty with Israel, but do not stand in the way of the peace process.” Such a scenario succeeds marginally with the Palestinian Islamists, but Hezbollah categorically refuses a peaceful solution. They think that the resistance is the foundation in its conflict with Israel. The most important indicator that some American diplomatic circles were discussing after the July 2006 war was Hezbollah’s changes to its political platform. Since then Hezbollah no longer directs its attention to the outside, and limits its struggle with Israel to the borders of Lebanon; all of this despite its refusal of a peace settlement and its ongoing ties to Iran and Syria. It is still the case that conducting dialogue requires more time, and Washington hasn’t considered such an option thus far.

Ar-Rafidayn: Won’t regional developments, among them diminishing American initiative in the Middle East, as well as the developing role of Turkey and Iran, contribute to the United States relying increasingly upon diplomatic means to engage Hezbollah?

Hamzawy: Regional developments will not push the United States into taking the required direction for dialogue with Hezbollah. In my estimation, some political commentators exaggerate both the increase in the power of Iran and Syria and the Turkish role in the Middle East. It is not possible for an entire conflict to be simplified into two camps: one pulling off a victorious resistance; the other, trapped in an inevitable process of peaceful withdraw and retreat. The United States has allies and has no need for dialogue with others except as a springboard to lessening tensions. That being said, it is not possible to consider Hezbollah as a political player in the regional balance, especially after the evolution of its political platform in the direction of Lebanese domestic affairs. The only exception to that trend has been their pronouncements on the Israeli war on Gaza in late 2008 and on the “Freedom Flotilla” affair.

Ar-Rafidayn: There are two currents within the American administration on engagement with Hezbollah, one demanding dialogue and another ruling it out. How do you explain that? Does this reflect the failure of Washington’s experiment with Islamist currents?

Hamzawy: The bottom line is that American foreign policy, up to this moment, refuses dialogue with Hezbollah. The voices calling for the opening of channels of communication do not represent an effective current. The U.S. experiment with Islamists in Somalia, Pakistan and Iraq was a relative success for one fundamental reason: these groups distance themselves from the issues surrounding the Arab-Israeli conflict, issues that are the ideological and logistical axis of Hezbollah. Washington realizes that Islamists who are far from complicating the security of Israel adhere to the rules of a peaceful political game, especially the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Morocco and Kuwait. Suffice it to say that the United States divides Islamic movements into two categories: the first is the propagandistic group that curses the West but doesn’t have any operational plan. This current does not represent a crisis in relation to the United States and does not threaten its interests. The second is labeled as a terrorist group and its actions are dreaded in times of crisis and conflict.

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America classifies our resistance as terrorism. It is not possible to engage in dialogue with an unjust power giving absolute support to Israel. — Ammar Mousawi

Ammar Mousawi, responsible for International Affairs for Hezbollah, affirms that Washington has not distanced itself from its negative attitude with regard to resistance movements whose members it considers to be terrorists. Mousawi insists that regional issues must be settled before even speaking about the opening of dialogue. He considers that “there is no benefit to dialogue so long as America adheres to the attitude of Israel in such a complete fashion.”

Ar-Rafidayn: In the U.S. State Department there is a trend calling for dialogue with Hezbollah: to what degree do you take this call seriously?

Mousawi: We have read some views originating from a minority of American officials regarding the call for dialogue with Hezbollah. In my estimation, this is nothing more than their personal opinion. Such calls do not demonstrate the existence at any level of a serious current in American policy promoting dialogue with Hezbollah. The American attitude has not moved beyond a negative attitude, classifying resistance movements as terrorist movements. American foreign policy looks at the region and its issues through Israeli eyes. Its attitude towards Hezbollah is governed by the tightly-tied knot that is American-Israeli strategic partnership. Despite the existence of some voices calling from time to time for opening this locked door, this is not an expression of any serious or official tendency.

Ar-Rafidayn: The opinion put forward by Ryan Crocker points to the importance of searching for a moderate current within Hezbollah. Is it possible to speak of a moderate current as opposed to a zealous one?

Mousawi: Any talk of the existence of moderates or zealots within Hezbollah does not concern us. Such classifications have no value and no foundation. Such an effort to divide us is the expression of an attempt to rally around an old attitude, that of complete separation. Meaning that whoever originates such a division is trying to furnish a justification for the logic of division and of beginning a dialogue under the slogan “we are encouraging the moderates.” But I can assure you that all members of Hezbollah, regardless of whether they are working in politics, in media, or in the armed resistance consider themselves resistance fighters, all complementing one another in the path of struggle.

Once more, we see the United States employing a rigid attitude as it contemplates the region. They are pursuing their interests, working to diffuse and accommodate them without any scrutiny. They divide the world between extremism and moderation, with the result that everyone going along with their policy is a part of the axis of moderation, and whoever opposes American opinions and attitudes becomes an extremist or a terrorist. The American policy is characterized by supremacy, rigidity, a lack of depth, and partiality toward Israel. On such a foundation it is not possible for anyone to expect to achieve a dialogue with the Americans. Therefore, we have reservations about such a dialogue, in that it is not possible for us to picture talks with a tyrannical power whose policy rests upon hubris and complete support for Israel.

Furthermore, it is up to the United States to review its policy and desist from its stubborn attitudes and its conspicuous partiality to Israel. From our vantage point, these policies leave Americans with many true enemies but only a few fair-weather friends. We reject the American definition of terrorism, and we reject any attempt to stigmatize our resistance as “terrorism.” We arm ourselves in a manner that accords with all conventions, laws and agreements attesting the rights of every nation and people to confront danger and occupation and to resist occupation with whatever means they have at their disposal.

We are of the opinion that the United States is in no position to try to divide others against themselves and then saddle the division. Its history is tattered with past and ongoing crimes committed by its leadership. These crimes have gone on for so long that even now Americans are asking themselves: “Why do others hate us?”

Ar-Rafidayn: Is it possible to characterize the dispute between Hezbollah and Washington in a political or ideological context?

Mousawi: The dispute with the United States does not arise from the realm of ideology; we do not have anything against the American people. Our enmity towards American policy does not rest upon an intellectual or a religious foundation. We do not believe in the inevitability of a clash of civilizations or in the inevitability of the confrontation of East and West, nor between Christianity and Islam, as is asserted by some Western literature. The whole dispute is a political one tied to America’s imperialist approach to the region.

Ar-Rafidayn: Why does the United States fear that Islamist currents, among them Hezbollah, may come to power?

Mousawi: To put it plainly, because the United States does not want a group hostile to its policy to come to power in any countries of the Arab and/or Islamic world. This doesn’t apply only to Islamist movements but to others as well. If we were to suppose that the United States were positioned to allow a certain Islamic group that agreed with its policy to come to power in a certain country, then it would not have an issue with this group. In brief, Americans support whoever supports their interests. The West, with the Americans in the lead, had supported Palestinian elections only to be shocked by the results. They never expected that Hamas could come to power when they supported holding elections in Palestine. The blockade in force for years now upon the Gaza Strip translates to the international overturning of the results of the Palestinian elections. In any case, the Americans are disposed to think ill of any Islamic example even if it is one that cooperates with them. They dread that the success of such a model could make it into the vanguard of Islamic resurgence on a regional level.

Ar-Rafidayn: You have previously conducted dialogue with Europeans. Where do you stand with regard to carrying out dialogue with the Americans and what are the most important factors that may throw obstacles in the way of that?

Mousawi: There is no value in dialogue so long as America is completely aligned with Israel and covers up its crimes. We are the ones who are affected by this issue, but the Americans deny it and in fact are fighting violently to do so. They are spending immense amounts of money for the sake of abusing Hezbollah and distorting its image, just as the previous American ambassador to Lebanon Jeffrey Feltman acknowledged.

Whoever examines American policy in Lebanon throughout the past years easily realizes how it has rested upon provoking Lebanese people against one another, rather than looking into the details of the Lebanese political situation. This is what we are dissatisfied about. Any discussion of American aid to Lebanon is nothing but a window for practicing forms of intervention and imperialistic patronage in Lebanese domestic affairs.

Ar-Rafidayn: After the attacks of September 11, the American administration set out the idea of dialogue with Hezbollah on the basis that Shiite fundamentalism is more pragmatic than Sunni fundamentalism. What do you think of this approach, and to what degree is it serious at this time?

Mousawi: If there are extremists in the region, then it is no more than a reaction to the imperialist policies that the United States practices. General David Petraeus of the U.S. Central Command, the commander of the U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan* very clearly announced that U.S. soldiers in the region are being killed because of the expanding hatred resulting from Israeli actions in the Palestinian occupied territories. In any case, the Americans do not distinguish one group from another except for the sake of accomplishing that which serves their interests. The true distinction that they practice is blatant in their provoking of Muslims against one another. Continuing to provoke divisions and sectarian conflicts between and among Muslims might be the last chance for the Americans to save themselves from the great regional entanglement into which they are sliding.

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Washington will not attempt dialogue unless Hezbollah recognizes the existence of the state of Israel. — Abdullah Bou Habib

Bou Habib, former Lebanese ambassador in Washington, thinks it unlikely that a dialogue can be held between Hezbollah and the U.S. administration. He emphasizes that Washington cannot plunge into such an experiment unless Hezbollah recognizes Israel’s right to exist. Bou Habib points to the existence of a current in the United States calling for opening lines of communication with Shiite fundamentalism, which does not adopt a platform of complete separation from the West.

Ar-Rafidayn: Explain the new American path signaled by President Barack Obama when he speaks about the importance of dialogue with adversaries and about Hezbollah’s pragmatism. To what extent is it possible for dialogue to occur, even if it is only by means of intermediaries, between Washington and Hezbollah?

Bou Habib: When Barack Obama talked about dialogue with adversaries, he spoke in a general way and did not indicate direct dialogue. Rather, he pointed to communicating with a group at the head of which is Iran, well aware that talks with Teheran during the Bush administration were strictly limited to the Iraq issue. The previous American administration had experience with Islamist movements, particularly so with Hamas. When Hamas ran in the legislative elections in 2006, Washington imposed the condition that Hamas accept Israel if there were to be any dialogue between Hamas and the U.S. This did not come to pass, and so Hamas was cut off and the blockade of Gaza began. If we compare the experience of Hamas to some of the calls for dialogue with Hezbollah, the first U.S. condition will be the acceptance of Israel; at the very least, the recognition of its existence. This is an unlikely affair that Hezbollah publicly rejects. According to the American administration, the condition of recognizing Israel would be sufficient for dialogue to begin. In my opinion, the proposal that Ryan Crocker has advanced is a result of the current position in which he finds himself. Most diplomats, after leaving the administration and no longer being in a position of authority, release ideas that may differ from the priorities of the State Department. In general, Americans think positively of dialogue with any people, but their foreign policy entails cutting off countries that are enemies or viewed as unfriendly.

Ar-Rafidayn: Americans engaged in dialogue with the Iranians on matters relating to Iraq. What has prevented such a dialogue with Hezbollah?

Bou Habib: The U.S. views Hezbollah as a military extension of Iran, and so wants to see it either disarmed or restrained by the Lebanese military before initiating any dialogue with it. Naturally, the acceptance of the existence of Israel is considered the most important factor for such a dialogue to occur. Hence, dialogue is ultimately unlikely. Washington is trying to repeat the experience of the P.L.O. [Palestine Liberation Organization] with Hezbollah, when it forced Yasser Arafat to recognize Israel. But the situation in Lebanon is different and Hezbollah has its own considerations. For these reason, dialogue is not occurring at the present time.

Ar-Rafidayn: Britain held talks with Hezbollah and they were somewhat of a success. What distinguishes them from the Americans?

Bou Habib: The Europeans are trying to distinguish themselves from the Americans when it comes to their policy in the Middle East. They are opening the doors for dialogue with organizations like Hezbollah with which Washington does not speak. The dialogue that went on between Britain and Hezbollah was welcomed by the leadership of the organization, but there were no tangible results on the ground because Western policy in the region is put into place by the United States. The Europeans lack effectiveness vis-à-vis the American giant. The Europeans do not differ from Washington in terms of their foreign outlook, although they are heading in the direction of greater flexibility and diplomacy.

The ascendant view in the West considers that the region is fragmenting between two fundamentalisms. The first is Shiite fundamentalism that seeks not to confront the West. The second is Salafist Sunnism, also known as “bin Ladinism,” that demonizes the West and considers it to have broken the bonds of the Islamic empire in 1918 in order to establish its own faith in the East. As I just indicated, since the events of September 11, 2001 the West has begun to make a distinction between Shiite fundamentalism and Sunni fundamentalism. Iran is a theocratic state that wants to settle its accounts with Sunni fundamentalism and work toward promoting Shiism in the world. Iran does not present as antagonistic a vision toward Western Civilization as that of the Salafists. There is a current in the West that thinks of opening cooperation with Shiite fundamentalism in a variety of venues, but what impedes such a cooperation, regardless of the objective merits of such an approach, is the Shiite fundamentalism’s non-acceptance of Israel.

Ar-Rafidayn: What is your reading of what Ryan Crocker has put forward, and is it possible to support such a direction in light of current regional tensions?

Bou Habib: The dialogue that Crocker called for is not taking place at the present time, regardless of current regional tensions which you pointed out. The United States has its own agenda in the area. It views Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. In the past, before the liberation of southern Lebanon, the American understanding of Hezbollah lacked the sharpness that it has today. Americans comprehended Hezbollah’s resistance operations against the Israeli occupation and thus did not classify them as terrorists. But the condition of the region at the present time is much more complex, especially with the entrance of the Iraq factor and the continuing growth of Iranian influence. Hence, dialogue between Hezbollah and Washington cannot be achieved within the visible horizon.