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Israel?s absence from the Rome Conference on Lebanon that took place yesterday allowed Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah to set the tone of the conflict: One between the ideology presented by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice ? a ?new Middle East? ? and the ideology of Hezbollah.

Nasrallah wants the world and the citizens of Lebanon to view the conflict not as a military operation or a war over the release of captives and prisoners, which he argues can be halted at any moment if Israel agrees to negotiate, but as ?the transformation of Lebanon into an entity under American-Zionist hegemony,? as he called it in his television appearance early yesterday.

For the first time, Nasrallah did not mention the Lebanese government. He presented himself and his organization as the ones waving the flag of ?honor? ? not only national honor, the kind that won?t allow international forces on Lebanese soil, but ideological honor, the kind that is meant to prevent the ?big plan? from being implemented.

Nasrallah said there were two plots afoot. He said Israel had been planning all along to take serious action against Lebanon in August or September; that is the small plan. According to this scenario, Hezbollah?s abduction of two soldiers was meant to eliminate the element of surprise that Israel would otherwise have had.

The big plan, said Nasrallah, was the American-Zionist hegemony.

?This war is more dangerous than the occupation in 1982,? he said, ?because today the intention is to return Lebanon to the control of the United States and Israel.?

Nasrallah does not see the Lebanese government as being able to take part in this ideological struggle, or as doing more than acting on his behalf.

In the absence of a cease-fire, Nasrallah sees himself as bearing responsibility for victory. Thus, he wants to be the one to set the parameters for defining victory, or at least for successful warfare: conducting a war of attrition, generating fear by declaring that areas deep inside Israel are being targeted, and causing as many Israeli casualties among soldiers and civilians as possible.

The Lebanese government is now left to help the needy, supply food and medicine and keep the Lebanese from fighting amongst themselves. This divided responsibility will pose no threat to Nasrallah as long as the government itself continues to be split over which political objective to pursue.