Israel’s recent release of the preliminary findings of the Winograd Commission, an independent government-appointed initiative led by former judge Eliyahu Winograd that was convened to investigate Israel’s failures in its summer 2006 war against Hezbollah in Lebanon, may spell the political demise of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (Haaretz, May 1). In contrast, Hezbollah was quick to use the findings of the report to bolster its claims of victory over the vastly superior Israeli military and to criticize the Lebanese government’s handling of the conflict. Hezbollah also harnessed the opportunity to enhance its Lebanese and Arab nationalist credentials and claims to represent a force for legitimate resistance in the face of growing pressure from Israel and Sunni-led regimes closely aligned with the United States. Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, among others, label the group as a destabilizing force and an instrument of Iranian Shiite militancy.
In a May 2 statement at the second annual Arab and International Book Fair hosted by the Education Association “Islamic Maaref” in Beirut’s southern suburbs of Dahiyeh, an impoverished area populated primarily by Shiite Muslims and a bastion of Hezbollah support, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah went so far as to praise Israel for acknowledging what the Winograd Commission labels as its numerous “failures”: “It is worthy of respect that an investigative commission appointed by Olmert condemns Olmert…We respect that political and popular powers swiftly moved to save their country, while unfortunately in Lebanon, neither an investigation was made nor a probing panel was formed…The Winograd Commission was faithful to ‘Israel’s’ existence, they are ready to sacrifice one hundred Olmerts for [Israel’s] survival” (http://www.moqawama.org).
Nasrallah also used the opportunity to juxtapose Israel’s Winograd Commission with the reaction of Lebanese and regional Arab leaders to last summer’s crisis. He highlighted the disconnect between the majority of Arabs and Muslims who view Hezbollah in a favorable light and a source of pride and their ruling regimes who perceive the group as a threat: “They [Israel] study their defeat in order to learn from it…Sadly, we wait for an ‘Israeli’ commission to tell us we have won.” He used the occasion of the book fair to criticize regional governments for their incompetence and lack of accountability and to praise the virtues of education, knowledge and free thought as key pillars of popular resistance and independence: “When there is an independent people, independent in their thought, will and ability to survive…they can be their own masters and they can be free…We have become the richest nation in the world, yet the most illiterate, subordinate and ignorant nation at a time when we have every resource we need” (http://www.moqawama.org).
Despite reports of a growing Sunni-Shiite sectarian divide in the Middle East and anti-Shiite sentiments among the most extreme fringes of Sunni militancy, the majority of Arab and Sunni Muslim public opinion holds Hezbollah in high esteem for its successful struggle against Israeli occupation in the past and impressive performance on the battlefield during the 2006 war. Hezbollah is also widely viewed as a Lebanese and Arab nationalist force, regardless of its Shiite Islamist pedigree and ties to Iran. In contrast, incumbent U.S.-backed autocratic regimes in Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia fear Hezbollah’s ability to galvanize local populations and inspire dissent among those opposed to their rule. By praising Israel’s decision to scrutinize the performance of its leadership publicly, Nasrallah is in effect highlighting the shortcomings of the incumbent leaders in Beirut, Cairo, Amman and Riyadh. This bolsters the group’s standing among Arabs and Muslims across the region, as well as in the context of Lebanon’s ongoing internal political struggle.