A Hezbollah Victory

Hezbollah has been touting the prisoner exchange deal with Israel as confirmation that the Shi'ite militant group ultimately defeated Israel in the Second Lebanon War, but the swap is at least as much of a Hezbollah victory within Lebanon.

"The signatures of Olmert and Peres on the swap means official confirmation of the defeat and failure of the July aggression in the face of the will of the resistance," said Nabil Kaouk, Hezbollah's commander in southern Lebanon.

But the swap may be even more significant within Lebanon. Since the end of the war, Hezbollah has been trying hard to prove that even if it was mistaken in its assessment of Israel's response to its abduction of Israeli soldiers, the war had a positive outcome. Despite UN Resolution 1701, which theoretically set strict limitations on military action, Hezbollah has strengthened itself militarily and politically since the war. It effectively annulled UN Resolution 1501, which laid the foundation for disarming it; it imposed its own conditions for the establishment of a new Lebanese government, attained veto power for important decisions, and is continuing its fight for an election law that would ensure it significant gains in next year's election. The prisoner swap tops off the list of achievements.

"Despite differences of opinion within Lebanon, Hezbollah has managed to take advantage of every opportunity to strengthen its military and political capabilities," Kaouk also said. The prisoner deal is one of those opportunities, which comes somewhat belatedly, since Hezbollah reaped most of its achievements on the domestic front before signing the swap. But the prisoner exchange is no longer needed as leverage in the domestic dispute. Thus although the big celebrations tomorrow in the Lebanese town of Aabey and in southern Beirut, where the freed prisoners will be welcomed home, will augment the store of faith the public has in Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the celebrations are not enough to serve an immediate political aim.

Nevertheless, it seems that Nasrallah is still not sure of his Israeli partner. Yesterday's report in the Hezbollah-affiliated Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar about the way the swap will take place, and particularly about the doubt regarding whether one of the Israeli captives was still alive, shows that Nasrallah is holding onto another card meant to keep Israel from backtracking at the last minute. Now what remains is to wait until Nasrallah gives a full report of the negotiations, including the tricks he played, and get the official Hezbollah version of the abduction. In his last speech, Nasrallah promised he would deliver more details, and it seems more unpleasant surprises await Israel.

The kidnapping of soldiers is considered in Lebanon to be part of Hezbollah's private accounting vis-a-vis Israel, and the swap is just one more page in this accounts ledger. However, Hezbollah, which presents itself as a national resistance organization working for the interests of Lebanon, must still produce one more achievement: Israel's withdrawal from the Shaba Farms area. The Shaba Farms function as Hezbollah's justification for the claim that Israel did not fully withdraw from Lebanon, requiring Hezbollah to be armed so it can complete this mission too. Hezbollah is not opposed to negotiations aimed at giving Lebanon control over the Shaba Farms; it simply does not believe in the Lebanese government's ability to achieve anything through talks with Israel.

The prisoner swap will serve Nasrallah as a banner to wave before the Lebanese government to prove the justness of Hezbollah's path.