A new trend is spreading all over the world. More states one by one designate the Lebanese Shia group “Hezbollah”, also known as “Party of God”, as a terrorist organization. Governments in different world regions outlaw it, prohibit entry to its members, and impose sanctions without dividing the organization into political and military branches.
On November 20, Slovenia became the last in the list of countries that recognized the entire organization as terrorist formation. Not so long ago, the Estonian government imposed sanctions against Hezbollah. Serbia, Lithuania, Austria, Great Britain, Czech Republic, Latvia also support such a policy. Germany hesitated for a long time before recognizing Hezbollah as a terrorist organization in April 2020. According to the reports, raft measures were implemented in the German regions; in particular, police raids on mosques took place in major cities in order to identify activity associated with the Shia organization.
The main enemy of the Lebanon’s Hezbollah has always been its neighbor, Israel. To fight the foe near its borders, Tel Aviv in addition to military methods actively calls on international community to abandon any support to the political branch of Hezbollah. Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs identifies continued funding and the organization’s ability to accumulate funds as one of the main reasons for the danger posed by Hezbollah.
At first glance, the internal political instability that has been persisting in Israel for a long time should weaken its foreign influence. Moreover, during this period the change of the Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs took place. The post was taken by G. Ashkenazi, a military man who served as chief of the IDF General Staff from 2007 to 2011. The confrontation between the Likud party, led by Netanyahu, and Blue and White, whose members include G. Ashkenazi and B. Gantz, was temporarily resolved by the principle of rotation in the Prime Minister post. After one and a half years of being in power, Netanyahu should be replaced by Benny Gantz in March 2021 for the next year and a half. Despite the fact that today the opposition is making efforts to change the previously adopted principles and calling for early elections, the continuing instability and uncertainty significantly complicate the work of the new head of the Foreign Ministry. While Ashkenazi was not expected to make significant breakthroughs in foreign policy, he managed to achieve significant results in maintaining the image of Hezbollah’s threat in various world regions.
The Israeli Foreign Ministry regularly holds negotiations with its foreign counterparts and develops separate strategies for different countries based on potential and real threats that are in some way related to the Hezbollah group.
The spread of a negative image of Hezbollah in the Middle East does not require any considerable efforts from Israel. The national interests of many countries in the region complement the interests of Tel Aviv. Hezbollah is their ideological and political bitter enemy.
The most aggressive towards the Shia organization are the Sunni monarchies, primarily Bahrain, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. For example, back in 2013 Bahrain concluded that the Hezbollah’s attacks bring to its designation as criminal. It was decided to abandon the use of the division of the party into political and paramilitary branches; therefore, a complex assessment of its activities was carried out. Bahrain is de facto an absolute monarchy, where power is concentrated in the hands of the ruling Sunni clan, and the majority of the population is Shia, who does not actually have the same civil rights and opportunities as the Sunni minority. Therefore, among the Bahraini population, Hezbollah is particularly popular, what the Sunni royal house considers as a direct threat. At the same time, states such as Oman and the UAE, which officially include Hezbollah under the heading “terrorist organizations”, at the level of national elites have a more balanced attitude towards the “Party of God.”
Significant success in creating an image of a dangerous threat from Hezbollah has been achieved in the countries of Latin America, where members of the Lebanese group are actively infiltrating local armed factions through ties with local Shia communities. In this region, the threat of inclusion of members of the Lebanese group in the illegal drug and arms market is quite real and causes an appropriate reaction from the local government. The situation is the most dangerous in Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil, where the largest Shia communities are located. Another reason of a severe reaction to Hezbollah’s activities is that these countries face another liberal turn in their history, and the influence of the United States is strengthening there.
The European direction is of particular importance for Israeli policy. There, Tel Aviv bets on the primary conviction of each separate country. Its efforts are yielding results, in recent months a number of countries in the region have taken measures to prevent the influence of the Shia organization in their territories.
The main obstacle to Israeli policy in the region is the position of France, one of the leading countries of the European Union. Macron is taking significant steps to maintain French influence in the territories of the former colonies, Lebanon is no exception. Paris is aware that actions against Hezbollah will entail significant changes in relations between the two countries. It is forced to reckon with the group, as it retains presence in influential political circles, and also has significant support among the population of Lebanon.
During Macron’s recent visits to Beirut, he paid special attention to direct communication with the population and spent quite a long time on the streets. This behavior is due to a number of reasons. First, the reports from his release to the Lebanese population were intended for intra-French consumption, thereby Macron showed his adherence to the basic principle of justice and multicultural approach. At the same time, in an effort to increase his popularity on the Lebanese streets, he seeks to reinforce a positive image of France. Taking into account the fact that Lebanon is one of the main footholds of the French influence in the region, the Macron’s public policy and his policy toward Hezbollah seem to be reasonable.
Despite the fact that the explosion in the port of Beirut and the subsequent aggravation of the economic and political crisis weakened the Hezbollah’s support among the Lebanese population, Macron apparently does not seek to make harsh decisions against the organization and expresses a neutral position. At the same time, not everyone supports the position of the president in the Champs Elysees and in the ranks of the French intelligentsia. Calls to ban the activities of the Lebanese group are regularly heard in the French Senate. A petition signed by nearly 30 famous personalities in France and published by Le Figaro received a wide response. It was calling on France and the EU to recognize Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, since “this is necessary to restore Lebanese sovereignty.”
Macron, in his turn, is in no hurry to change his position. This seems very unlikely due to the fact that the political wing of the organization declares openness to the reforms proposed by Macron after the disaster in the port of Beirut. It is hard to imagine that Macron would sacrifice long-term French interests in Lebanon in favor of the tactical benefits that France could gain from the United States, Israel or the Persian monarchies.
A deeper look reveals that Macron’s final goal is not to gain the sympathy of the Lebanese people but to fall in favor with Iran. For France, both Iranian hydrocarbons and the Iranian market are of great importance. In view of the expected detente in the Iranian relation with the United States, and therefore with the entire West, after President Biden takes office, it may turn out that the French business will be the most favorable among the Iranians. It concerns not only large state-owned Iranian economic undertakings, but also the people.
Thus, the systematic work of Israeli services can be traced in various world regions. Tel Aviv acts by identifying the major threats linked to Hezbollah for each country. This is confirmed by the case of Germany, which was biased against Hezbollah under the pretext of the threat of growing radical Islamism. The same threat seems to refer to most countries in the European Region. Latin America, in its turn, fears the integration of the Shia organization with local armed groups. A different tactic is implemented in the Middle East, where a growing number of states declare the normalization of relations with Israel, and have a common interest in reducing Iran’s influence in the region and opposing one of its main pillars – Hezbollah.
Israeli efforts will probably result in Tel-Aviv’s tactical victory. However, Israeli recognition of the Hezbollah’s political branch as a terrorist organization highly likely was a strategic mistake. Otherwise, Tel Aviv had at least a minimal opportunity to conduct a dialogue with them through American diplomacy. Today, the internal contradictions in Knesset are intensifying, the end to acute ethnic, religious, political conflicts in the region is not in sight, and the situation is exacerbated by the world economic crisis. In the minds of a significant part of the population in the whole region, the Shia organization will strengthen its status as an Islam defender, striving for social justice and fighting the Zionist threat. Consequently, Hezbollah will receive more supporters, more resources, and therefore more influence. Its members and supporters will be more encouraged to radical commitment and actions, including martyrdom for Hezbollah’s ideals.
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*All posts on behalf of South Front are made by Gordon Duff