Shots could be heard throughout the night on the streets of western Beirut, the Sunni stronghold in Lebanon. As opposed to the night of May 8th, 2008, when Hizbullah forcefully took over the western section of the Lebanese capital in order to force its veto demand on the government, this time around it was the supporters of the pro-Western camp who hit the streets to celebrate their victory.
The polls published in Lebanon showed a tight race and a reasonable chance for a Hizbullah victory in the parliamentary elections. However, once polling stations opened it turned out that in Lebanon too the pollsters were wrong, or deceptive, and the “March 14 camp” headed by the Sunni Saad al-Hariri and the Druze Walid Jumblatt won.
However, celebrations were not limited to Lebanon. It appears that across the Middle East, an all-clear siren was sounded this morning – from Beirut to Jerusalem, and from Riyadh to Cairo. The camp of the “bad guys,” inspired by Iran, failed in its attempt to democratically take power in Lebanon. And so, four days after US President Barack Obama invited residents of the region to walk with him on a new path of moderation, reconciliation, peace, and mostly friendship with America – Lebanese voters complied with him and granted a victory, even if by points, to the pro-Western camp.
Despite the results, Lebanon remains a divided country, torn between two camps that are almost equal in size: The Sunni-Druze camp, and the Shiite camp, which is reinforced by large parts of the Maronite sect. In this context it appears that the big losers in the elections are the Maronites, who used to control the State, and have now become the followers of Hizbullah – lacking any power or status, and safely in Nasrallah’s pocket from now on.
Lebanon’s election results highlight the increasing gap between demography – the fact that the Shiites are the largest sect in the country – and the political system. The division of seats in parliament is anachronistic, and the Shiites are only given about 15% of all seats (27 out of 128) even though they make up 30-40% of the population.
Results make no difference for IsraelIt is difficult to assume that the Shiites, under Hizbullah’s leadership, will accept such reality over time, and their conclusion in the wake of the elections may be that their hope to change Lebanon’s system via democratic means had failed. From here it may be a short distance to another forceful Hizbullah attempt to change Lebanon’s rules of play.
For Israel, the election results make no difference. After all, Hizbullah will continue to do whatever it wishes in Lebanon, particularly in respect to building its military force vis-à-vis the IDF. The fact that Lebanon was ruled by a pro-Western government headed by Fouad Siniora in the past four years did not prevent the organization from embarking on a war with Israel in July 2006, and did not stop the group from arming itself in the wake of the war with an arsenal of nearly 50,000 missiles, which cover most of Israel’s territory.
The challenges to be faced by Israel in the near future would therefore be to convince Western governments, headed by the US, not to rush to hug Hariri and Jumblatt while ignoring the “Hizbullah state,” which Lebanese politicians are willing to reconcile themselves to for lack of other choice.
Prof. Eyal Zisser heads the Dayan Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv University