For what is Hezbollah apologising?

Hezbollah has worked to mobilise its constituents to paint itself and its followers as the antithesis of Israel and Zionism.
Thursday 28/02/2019
Lebanon's President Michel Aoun sits in the chair reserved for heads of state before delivering his address at UN headquarters in New York, last September. (Reuters)
In the crosshairs. Lebanon's President Michel Aoun sits in the chair reserved for heads of state before delivering his address at UN headquarters in New York, last September. (Reuters)

In response to the comment made by Lebanese Kataeb Party’s leader Samy Gemayel in which he said Lebanese President Michel Aoun arrived at the presidency thanks to Hezbollah's weapons, Hezbollah deputy Nawaf al-Moussawi retorted that it was more honourable for Aoun to become president thanks to the “weapons of resistance” than to be escorted to the presidency aboard an Israeli tank.

Moussawi’s quip was in reference to the election of Christian leader Bachir Gemayel as president in 1982 following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon.

The rejoinder angered Lebanese Christians and intense complaints against Hezbollah poured in, especially from the party’s Christian allies belonging to Aoun's faction. Hezbollah issued an apology.

This does not mean however that Moussawi's "burst of emotion" runs counter to Hezbollah rhetoric. Moussawi's accusations of collusion with Israel targeting political opponents are an old page of the party's playbook.

Hezbollah has worked to mobilise its constituents to paint itself and its followers as the antithesis of Israel and Zionism, making anyone opposing Hezbollah an agent serving Israel and Zionism.

Moussawi was overtly broadcasting a fact that is often touted by Hezbollah -- even among its Christian allies -- that the party imposed Aoun as president by force, closing the door to any alternative, even if that meant that Baabda Palace would stay vacant until further notice.

There is only one problem with Moussawi's statements. True, they reportedly embarrassed Aoun and his team but they are not accurate.

Hezbollah, which is credited with closing off the road to the presidential palace for any other candidate, would not have been able to impose Aoun as president without outside help. Aoun knew that, so he and his team started to figure out how to get to the presidency instead of waiting for it to happen through Hezbollah's strategy.

The lust for the presidential palace spurred in the Aounist political vision a renewed awareness of the social, political, regional and international dimensions of the Lebanese context. It also cultivated within Aoun and his acolytes a desire to engage with others.

In the infamous "wedding" of January 2016 at Me’rab, command post of the Lebanese Forces Party’s leader Samir Geagea, Geagea beatified Aoun as president. The Christian reconciliation appeared to have been a coup that was not within expectations a few years ago.

Aoun and his team have long profited from their dispute with the Lebanese Forces to glean a favoured position in Christian public opinion. Aoun sought this time to take advantage of the reconciliation to clear the Christian-related obstacles in the way of his presidential ambitions.

The change in the Christian mood in favour of Aoun was not sufficient. It coincided with a change in Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri's approach.

He, too, developed, while in exile, a new perception of the intricacies of internal Lebanese politics, as well as of the reality of international attitudes towards the country. It seemed that the man, who had paid the price of violence and “weapon surpluses,” and who experienced first-hand a coup against his government when he was huddled under the roof of the White House in Washington, had grasped the calculus of what’s possible and what’s impossible.

Hariri’s realism would not have pushed him to the point of supporting Aoun’s candidacy for president. At the end of 2015, Geagea surprised supporters -- before surprising his opponents -- by announcing the nomination of Suleiman Frangieh as president.

Frangieh was one of the hawks of the March 8 Alliance. He publicly admitted his alliance with Hezbollah and was proud of his personal friendship with Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Hariri viewed the matter as a choice intended to defend the country's interest and had hoped to draw the opposing camp towards his visions of state-building. Saudi Arabia supported Hariri’s choice.

It seemed that an overly realistic Hariri was forced to jump over the Frangieh choice in favour of Aoun. The Christian reconciliation contributed to this change in Hariri's strategies and Hezbollah's insistence on Aoun instead of Frangieh had pushed Hariri to accept what he wouldn’t have accepted under different circumstances.

So, Aoun’s landing at Baabda Palace was the result of circumstances created by various rivals and Hezbollah cannot claim to be the only legitimate midwife of the political settlement that resulted in Aoun becoming president.

Hezbollah has recently been discovering that the Christian street, especially the one it counted as an ally, can no longer provide cover for Hezbollah’s denigration of figures of great significance in the history of Christians in Lebanon.

Hezbollah’s media platforms, mouthpieces and defenders have got used to using accusations of betrayal and of working for Israel as ammunition against its opponents. If they dared to use it against the Hariri camp, they would not hesitate in using it against the Maronite Christian camp.

Hezbollah finds it easy to make these accusations but it has overlooked the fact that the Christian political environment in Lebanon has been engaged in making documented reviews of the Lebanese civil war. Political currents in the other Lebanese communities have not engaged in such reviews.

Hezbollah's apology raises questions not about why it had to do it, but about the nature of the mistake that deserved such an apology.

Is the party apologising for publicly admitting that its weapons allowed Aoun to become president or is it apologising for Moussawi’s reference to what the latter and many other Hezbollah figures often repeated that it was the Israeli tank that had put Gemayel in the presidency in 1982?

Putting circumstances surrounding Aoun’s ascension to the presidency aside, Hezbollah is faced with explaining to its supporters the implications of its apology about the Gemayel comment before sharing them with the rest of the Lebanese.

Is the party apologising for stating publicly some truth it has repeated since the 1980s or is it apologising for accusing a Christian faction of working for Israel? In this sense, does it mean that its Christian adversaries were not agents of Israel after all and that Gemayel was never inside an Israeli tank? If that’s not the case, then why did Hezbollah apologise?