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Analysis'There's no possibility of reform, no possibility of change'

Despite Lebanon election setbacks, Hezbollah remains a growing threat to Israel

Shiite group and its allies lost their parliamentary majority, but Israel’s northern neighbor remains a dysfunctional state in which Nasrallah’s terror faction does what it pleases

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Posters expressig support for the leader of Lebanon's Hezbollah Hassan Nasrallah, hang on a main road in the capital Beirut, on May 14, 2022, on the eve of parliamentary elections. (LOUAI BESHARA / AFP)
Posters expressig support for the leader of Lebanon's Hezbollah Hassan Nasrallah, hang on a main road in the capital Beirut, on May 14, 2022, on the eve of parliamentary elections. (LOUAI BESHARA / AFP)

With the full results in, the headlines made it seem like Lebanon’s parliamentary elections were a win for Hezbollah’s opponents in Lebanon, the region, and of course, for Israel.

Hezbollah’s bloc lost its parliamentary majority in Sunday’s vote — dropping from 71 to 62 seats in the 128-member body — and the firmly anti-Hezbollah, anti-Syrian Lebanese Forces party will become the largest Christian group in parliament. An impressive showing by several independent reform candidates also indicates a public desire to do away with the corrupt leaders who have run the country into the ground.

But any expectations that Lebanon has managed to turn itself around, or that the Hezbollah threat to Israel is going to be reduced, add up to “some wishful thinking,” said Jacques Neriah, Middle East analyst at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

“The final picture of what we see today is the quagmire of Lebanon,” Neriah said Monday night. “There is no possibility of reform. There is no possibility of change in the political system. We are stuck in paralysis and stagnation.”

The election comes after years of turmoil in Lebanon, which has in recent years  defaulted on its debt and seen the Lebanese pound lose 95 percent of its value.

It has also been traumatized by a devastating explosion in August 2020, in which ammonium nitrate improperly stored in a Beirut port warehouse caught fire and exploded, killing more than 200 people and injuring thousands.

Political leaders have succeeded in obstructing investigations into the blast, and two of the main suspects even looked to have secured reelection in Sunday’s poll.

A picture shows smoke from a huge fire raging in Beirut port on September 10, 2020 (Joseph EID / AFP)

After the elections, Lebanon is no better situated to cope with the deep dysfunction at the heart of its governing system.

“The Republic of Lebanon is a destroyed state,” said Amos Gilad, executive director of the Institute for Policy and Strategy at Herzliya’s Reichman University. “The government is paralyzed, the state is corrupt. And these elections don’t help in any way.”

“No one can effect any change in that country, which is suffering from a terminal disease,” he said.

A voter casts his ballot in the parliamentary election at a polling station in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, on May 15, 2022. (Photo by Ghassan Sweidan/AFP)

With the Hezbollah bloc and its rivals – who are anything but united – splitting parliament fairly evenly, the next major political decision for the country won’t come easy. Eighty-eight-year-old President Michel Aoun, a Hezbollah ally, steps down in October, and parliament will be tasked with choosing his replacement, who by convention must be a Maronite Christian. Aoun wants his corrupt son-in-law Gebran Bassil to succeed him, but Bassil is personally unpopular and has lost Hezbollah’s support.

“This parliament will not be able to vote for a president,” predicted Neriah.

While the ongoing dysfunction makes it impossible for ordinary citizens to return to any sort of normalcy, it won’t get in the way of Hezbollah’s continued military buildup.

“No one is going to take Hezbollah’s weapons. That’s not on the agenda at all,” said the Mitvim Institute’s Michael Harari, Israel’s former ambassador to Cyprus.

“This parliamentary election, whatever the outcome, was never going to have a major impact on Hezbollah’s influence within the country,” said David Daoud, Lebanon expert at the Atlantic Council.

Now that Hezbollah has lost its majority, “the political game is harder for Hezbollah,” said Harari.

Even without control of parliament, it won’t be handcuffed. The last time Hezbollah and its allies were in the minority against a theoretically unified March 14 bloc, until the 2018 elections, they still managed to pursue their goals domestically and regionally.

“Through various means, they were still able to retain their arsenal, grow their organizational infrastructure, and embark upon adventures in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen,” Daoud pointed out.

A protester holds a placard outside a court building during a demonstration of solidarity with Judge Tarek Bitar who is investigating last year’s deadly seaport blast, in Beirut, Lebanon, September 29, 2021. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

A more challenging domestic picture is about the extent of the potential bad news for Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah.

Nor will the election have any impact on Hezbollah’s behavior toward Israel, argued Daoud.

“The singular factor that has constrained the group’s actions against the Israelis over the past two years has been the ongoing collapse and instability in Lebanon, which Hezbollah doesn’t wish to compound with a war from which Lebanon won’t recover,” he continued. “And I have to stress the point – Hezbollah is constrained by these factors within Lebanon, not weakened.”

What’s more, Lebanon’s political and economic morass offers plenty of opportunity for Hezbollah.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah speaks via a video link during a ceremony to mark the second anniversary of the assassination of the head of Iran’s Quds Force, General Qassem Soleimani, in the southern Beirut suburb of Dahiyeh, Lebanon, January 3, 2022. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

“Between Beirut and the border there are 150,00 rockets, and the one who operates them is Nasrallah,” said Gilad. “Hezbollah is the only actor that is organized there.”

Nasrallah knows that his organization will be fine despite the final tally. Just before the elections, he felt confident enough to threaten Israel’s gas exploration in the disputed offshore Karish gas field.

“The elections don’t solve it,” Gilad said. “The results are such that it’s either Hezbollah will lead, or it will take advantage of this crisis in order to grow stronger.”

AFP contributed to this report. 

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