Hezbollah Issue Is Splitting the Arabs

Paradoxically, the definition of Hezbollah as a terror group has turned into a dividing line between Arab countries, which must now decide whether to embrace Saudi hegemony.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
Hezbollah fighters hold flags as they attend the funeral procession of a Hezbollah senior commander killed in Syria, March 2, 2016.
Hezbollah fighters hold flags as they attend the funeral procession of a Hezbollah senior commander killed in Syria, March 2, 2016.Credit: AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

“Their weapons don’t protect anyone in Lebanon. On the contrary, their weapons are a disaster that will turn its citizens into victims of revenge. We have unjustifiably become an integral part of a civil war. We are no more than mercenaries serving Russian policy.”

These penetrating words were spoken by none other than former Hezbollah secretary-general Subhi Tufayli in an interview with the Saudi Arabian newspaper A-Sharq al-Awsat. Tufayli also complained about the part Iran is playing in the Syrian civil war as a Russian apprentice.

Of course, Tufayli has been fed up with successor Hassan Nasrallah ever since he was knocked out of the Hezbollah leadership by Iran, and the very fact he granted an interview to a Saudi newspaper when Hezbollah and Iran are in a fight with Saudi Arabia was meant to poke Hezbollah in the eye. Still, his remarks reflect the deep dispute within Lebanon, not just between Hezbollah’s supporters and opponents, but within the entire Shi’ite sect.

The domestic dispute in Lebanon was stoked further by Saudi Arabia’s decision around 10 days ago to freeze its economic aid to Beirut and the decision by the Persian Gulf states to join those sanctions. Both Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states subsequently defined Hezbollah as a terror organization, and that was topped by a resolution by the Arab League’s Interior Ministers Council, which met in Tunis last Wednesday, also declaring it a terror group.

During the conference, however, the deep disagreements among the Arab states came to the fore, which is why Saudi Arabia had to suffice with a softer wording of that resolution than it had wanted. Tunisia, the host country, had opposed calling Hezbollah a terror organization. Algeria also renounced the decision, and the Iraqi foreign minister quit the conference to protest that the resolution was passed between the conference participants “without any of us having seen it before. We oppose diktats by one party,” he said.

Iraq has a problem with defining Hezbollah as a terror group because the organization is cooperating with the Shi’ite Mobilization Forces in Iraq, which are battling Islamic State, and because Iran is Iraq’s most important trading partner. Lebanon, as expected, also objected to the resolution, but Hezbollah did not succeed in forcing the Lebanese government to issue a condemnation of it.

Egypt was actually put in an embarrassing position; it supported the Arab League resolution, but hasn’t yet figured out how to implement it legally; whether to include Hezbollah in its list of terror organizations, as it has with the Muslim Brotherhood, or whether to treat the resolution as a non-binding position paper that requires no action.

Over the weekend, Arab commentators wrote that Egypt was “forced” to back the Saudi position at the Tunis conference because it is battling to have an Egyptian named secretary-general of the Arab League. Without the support of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, there’s no way that will happen, making it necessary to placate Saudi Arabia on the issue of Hezbollah.

To make it clear to Egypt that on this issue it cannot make do with expressing a vague position, prominent Saudi columnist Abdulrahman al-Rashed, former general manager of the Saudi Al-Arabiya television network, wrote that Egypt has two choices. One is that it can reconcile with Turkey as well as the Muslim Brotherhood and stick to its anti-Iranian stance, while the other is to reconcile with Iran against the Muslim Brotherhood.

As far as Rashed and his country are concerned, there is no third option, for example, battling both the Muslim Brotherhood and Hezbollah, and whoever opposes Saudi policy had better be aware of the price. Egypt, which over the past two years has received more than $16.5 billion from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, cannot choose sides on its own, especially not after Riyadh imposed economic sanctions on Lebanon, a broad hint to any country enjoying Saudi largesse.

Thus, paradoxically, the definition of Hezbollah as a terror group has turned into a dividing line between the Arab countries, which must now decide whether to embrace Saudi hegemony, which doesn’t necessarily suit their domestic policies. The question for them is not whether Hezbollah is a terror group but whether, given the change in Iran’s international standing, they are prepared to place barricades before it by completely adopting Saudi policy. The paradox is even greater because Saudi policy has elevated Hezbollah to the status of a country, toward which the Arab League must now formulate a pan-Arab policy.

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