An editorial in The Hindu
Hizbollah has strongly affirmed its status as the ascendant political force in Lebanon by pulling off two coups within a week. On July 11, the Shia-based politico-military formation re-entered the federal cabinet with the capacity to exercise veto power. Five days later, it extracted a major concession from Israel in the form of a prisoners-for-bodies deal. Hizbollah, whose militia might actually be stronger than the national army, showed magnanimity during the Beirut rece ption it hosted for the released prisoners. That might not have raised the comfort levels for Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and the parties that support him. Although Hizbollah has taken only one of the 27 cabinet berths, its allies control 10 Ministries. Under a recent agreement between all Lebanese parties, policy decisions will not become effective unless supported by at least two-thirds of the cabinet ministers. Several major steps must be taken before parliament elections are held in 2009. These include changes to the electoral law and the disarming of all militias. Hizbollah has been trying to push through electoral reforms to make the distribution of seats reflect the demographic changes that have taken place over several decades. While accurate census data are not available, it is widely believed that the Shias are now the largest of Lebanon’s 18-odd sectarian groups or ‘confessions.’ Mr. Siniora will also have a hard time trying to disarm Hizbollah’s militia. Even if he manages to drum up the special majority in the cabinet, he will not have the military strength to enforce the decision.
Inside Lebanon, Hizbollah’s current display of modesty is backed by military clout. This apart, it is the only party to earn the respect of ordinary people belonging to other sects. Its role in nearly re-igniting the civil war in May 2008 does not appear to have erased the lustre it acquired after stopping the brutal Israeli invasion in 2006. The Druse will be mindful that Samir Kuntar, a member of their own community, was one of the prisoners whose release was secured by Hizbollah. In making the deal, Israel seemed to act out of character. It released the prisoners and also handed over the coffins of the 199 Lebanese killed in the course of several conflicts in exchange for the bodies of two soldiers whose abduction and killing sparked the 2006 war. It did so in the hope that the swap would soften Hizbollah’s stance on the last remaining territorial dispute between the two countries. The Shia organisation has hinted that it would be open to a diplomatic solution. That will be the best way forward because its diplomacy will come from a position of strength.