ANALYSIS / It Took 2 Years, but Nasrallah Kept Promise to Free Kuntar

Israel's insistence on not releasing Kuntar played into Nasrallah's hands; it was a test of his leadership.

In April 2006, on the 27th anniversary of Samir Kuntar's imprisonment, Hassan Nasrallah promised "the prisoners will return to us very shortly."

It took two years until Kuntar was freed. Nasrallah's insistence on Israel releasing Kuntar, who wasn't a Hezbollah man but a member of the Palestine Liberation Front, was a test of Nasrallah's leadership. Even the return of his son's body, after he was killed by the IDF in 1997, didn't slow him down.

Nasrallah built up Kuntar into a symbol of his own credibility and his ability to deliver on promises to such an extent that he imposed his release on all of Lebanon. Praises were showered on Hezbollah, the Lebanese leadership was prominent at the reception for the freed prisoners and Lebanese and Hezbollah flags flew side by side. All this merged Kuntar, the symbol, with the leader who brought him home and the state whose politics Nasrallah dictates. Israel's insistence on not releasing Kuntar played into Nasrallah's hands, for he perceived, with his customary insight into Israeli public opinion, that Israel was providing him with a banner.

Nasrallah is expected to release more details of the last negotiation round in the near future. But his approach to Kuntar's release is especially interesting. As a religious man he was expected to make use of the religious edict and ethnic context. But Nasrallah did the opposite. He refrained from using religious terms and is not attributing his last achievement to the Shi'ite community. He sees it as a triumph of Hezbollah and Lebanon - of the Christians, Shias, Syrians and Druze who support the resistance. This is a military, political - not ideological - victory, suitable to Lebanon which is trying to balance the power of religion with the political perks accorded its representatives.

Nasrallah is familiar with this game, knowing he can compensate for the limitations of his religious power with political achievements for his community and allies, even if they're not Shi'ite.

Thus Nasrallah yesterday forced Lebanon's Christian president, Sunni prime minister and political rivals to embrace "his" prisoners. For a moment it looked like Nasrallah was forcing his victory on the Lebanese leadership, for those who were embracing the prisoners would be unable to criticize the organization that led Lebanon into war. This Nasrallah technique is not new. In his pronouncements over the years, he has proved adept at weaving together all of Lebanon's political, religious and nationalist threads.

Nasrallah, 48, is a Shi'ite who studied in the holy city Najaf in Iraq for two years but was also a close associate of Sunni Rafik Hariri, Lebanon's prime minister who was murdered in 2005. He is allied with secular Syria and coordinates his religious ideology with Iran. While he is a political ally of Christian Michel Aoun, he speaks in Shi'ite terms in Beirut's southern neighborhood, home to the religious Shi'ite bastion. He enlists "Islamic resistance" to defend the homeland and its borders - terms that are ideologically contradictory to the idea of reestablishing the Muslim nation.

Palestinian nationalism is important to him up to the point it can erode his or Hezbollah's status. He cares about the Palestinians' suffering in Lebanon up to the point they ask for the right to work or buy property in Lebanon. Then Nasrallah joins the ranks of Lebanese politicians, who want the Palestinians out.

Like other fascist leaders, Nasrallah is a man of grand pomp and ceremony, in which the uniform, flag and weapons are the main props and setting. But how long will he be able to sustain Lebanon with the great exhibition he mounted yesterday, before he is required to explain what his next move will be following the negotiations between Israel and Syria? Will he allow Lebanon to open its own negotiations or will he stand by and watch Syria advance toward the enemy?