Analysis Hezbollah Will Reap Benefits of Deal With Israel

If Israel agrees to the swap deal and leaves the Shabaa Farms, the militant group can declare the victory which it saw as starting with the IDF withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000, but it could then be faced with having to redefine its own raison d'etre.

At an evening meal to break a day of fasting for Ramadan four days ago, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah told his guests that he had heard that Israel is building a separation fence between the Shaaba Farms and the rest of the territories occupied by Israel in the north, similar to the West Bank fence between Israel and the Palestinians.

After the Israel Defense Forces withdrew from Lebanon in May 2000, the United Nations ruled that the villages in the Shaaba Farms were on the Israeli side, as they are part of territory taken from Syria in 1967. Since Israel's withdrawal, however, Hezbollah has kept up the dispute over Shaaba Farms, and launched attacks on Israel for holding land it considers to be part of Lebanon.

Nasrallah said that he did not yet have evidence to prove that the fence is being built, but made a connection between this information and the prisoner swap deal currently being brokered between his group and Jerusalem.

Nasrallah wanted to create the impression that his organization is about to realize two of the commitments it made when the IDF withdrew from Lebanon. One pledge was to release all Lebanese prisoners held in Israel, and the other was to have the IDF withdraw from all occupied Lebanese territory, including the Shaaba Farms. The snippet about the fence was intended to hint that the withdrawal had been carried out.

If the Israeli government votes to approve the prisoner exchange deal Sunday, Nasrallah will be able to claim a huge victory in internal Lebanese politics, even if there is no withdrawal from the Shaaba Farms.

This is the main reason why the organization, which generally keeps silent about prisoner exchanges and has given a cool response to previous attempts at obtaining information or prisoner swaps, is now talking endlessly about the deal. Moreover, unlike in the past, Hezbollah is now behaving like a powerful engine generating threats against Israel if it does not carry out its part of the deal.

Over the past few weeks, Nasrallah has on three separate occasions publicly warned Israel against any last-minute retreats from the deal, because this is a golden deal for Nasrallah. The release of over 400 prisoners, most of whom are not Lebanese, the handing over of a map of mines left in Lebanon by Israel, and the release of Jordanian prisoners is much more than the organization hoped to achieve two years ago.

Furthermore, Hezbollah - which is labeled as a terror organization - is holding negotiations as if it were a state and in the name of the Lebanese government which should have conducted the talks, as they relate directly to Lebanese prisoners and Israelis held in Lebanese territory. From the point of view of Nasrallah and similar organizations, Hezbollah is completing the perceived victory over Israel which began in May 2000.

On the other hand, the move has called into question Hezbollah's continued strategy in Lebanon. If the militant group achieves its goal and secures the release of the prisoners, and if it can show that Israel was taking steps to separate itself from the Shabaa Farms, then the organization would no longer have a pretext to carry out resistance actions against Israel from Lebanon.

In fact, the group's existence as a military organization will no longer be valid, a fact that bothers Hezbollah and led Nasrallah to announce during that festive dinner that the resistance toward Israel (and toward the U.S. presence in Iraq) should been seen in a wider framework than Lebanon, and that "resistance" to Israel needs no pretext.

What is new about these declarations is not the policy itself, but the fact that it has been publicly declared. These are issues about which the organization has in the past been vague, and about whose future it has previously refrained from making any commitments. Furthermore, Nasrallah's need to clarify future goals shows that he is aware of the dilemma which could arise if Israel agrees to his demands by releasing prisoners and retreating from the Shabaa Farms.

In such a scenario, the struggle of the Hezbollah leader would be dependent on the policy of other states, and Nasrallah would find it difficult to act as Syria's protector in the face of an Israeli assault, even though he has declared that he would never let Syria stand alone against Israel.

However, until Hezbollah has to deal with this dilemma, it can for the time being declare victory, and achieve political gains in both Lebanon and Syria.