On November 9, some five months after Lebanon's parliamentary elections, the country's two main political blocs finally formed a governing cabinet. Until then, negotiations between the two -- Prime Minister Saad Hariri's Western-backed coalition and the powerful opposition led by Hezbollah -- had been deadlocked over several issues, including Hezbollah's disarmament. One month after reaching the deal, the government adopted a bill allowing Hezbollah to keep its weapons. The Hezbollah bloc controls 10 out of 30 cabinet seats in the new government, which means that many are pessimistic about Lebanon's future prospects.
Hezbollah is one of the best equipped and most capable militant groups in the world. Its decades-long resistance against Israel served it well, winning it favor among Lebanon's Shia Muslims, who constitute about 40 percent of the population. Although Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon in 2000 and Hezbollah has partially transitioned to a political party, Hezbollah leaders remain resolutely anti-Israel for reasons of principle and pragmatism. Meanwhile, its charitable programs and community involvement have further reinforced its domestic credibility.
This situation is not stable. In 2006, for example, even though the Lebanese government never declared war, Hezbollah used its large weapons stockpile to fight Israel for over a month. And in May 2008, when then Prime Minister Fouad Siniora moved to shut down Hezbollah's communications network, the group responded by seizing much of Beirut, which triggered fears of renewed civil war. To end the confrontation, Hezbollah was granted veto power in the Lebanese cabinet. Hezbollah leaders no doubt understood this as affirming their right to keep their weapons. The absence of further discussions on disarmament in the cabinet has only strengthened this view. But as long as it is robustly armed, Hezbollah not only poses a threat to Israel but also to Lebanon.
Although Lebanese parliamentarians have so far been unable or unwilling to compel Hezbollah to give up its arsenal, other parties have been trying. Last June, six months of behind-the-scenes disarmament discussions culminated in a meeting between Frances Guy, the United Kingdom's ambassador to Lebanon, and Mohammad Raad, Hezbollah's parliamentary leader. The meeting, which was the first since relations were severed in 2005, yielded no immediate results. But the fact that the two sides are conversing at all is an essential preliminary to eventual disarmament talks.
For their part, the British are uniquely experienced in co-opting terrorist groups: their willingness to interact with Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Provisional Irish Republican Army, ultimately induced the IRA to agree to surrender its weapons as part of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. To be sure, the decommissioning process moved slowly until 2006, by which time Sinn Fein had become the second most powerful political party in Northern Ireland. The IRA was then convinced that the ballot box was more powerful than the gun and relinquished its weapons in earnest.
Of course, the IRA's strategic circumstances in the 1990s were very different from Hezbollah's today. The IRA was not beholden to any outside backer, and its justification for fighting -- that it needed weapons to defend Northern Irish Catholics who favored Irish unification against the Protestant unionist majority who wanted Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom -- had largely evaporated by 1997. In contrast, Hezbollah depends on support from Iran and Syria and has served as their agent against Israel for decades. It also sees the current threat posed by Israel as greater now, because of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's reputation as a hard-liner, than in previous years.
But the similarities between the two cases are no less striking than the differences. Like Hezbollah, the IRA claimed to speak for an oppressed minority and had political and military wings. It had glorified armed resistance and had political ambitions for which a combination of violence and nonviolent politics had often proven useful.
Most important, Hezbollah, like the IRA 15 years ago, may be ready to shift more decisively into the political realm: a 2009 RAND study concluded that Hezbollah was distancing itself from Iranian patronage in order to increase its domestic legitimacy among parties that have viewed it as Tehran's lackey. And while the Hezbollah bloc did retain strong support in the June elections, taking 57 of 128 parliamentary seats, it lost out to Hariri's Western-backed coalition. Some of Hezbollah's leaders might see a move toward demilitarization as a new avenue for increasing the group's appeal and bolstering its credibility as a party. Contact with Hezbollah would have to exploit this impulse to be useful.
Demilitarizing Hezbollah is a daunting proposition, but it is a worthy one. The British, however, do not wield the same influence in the Middle East as they did in Ireland, meaning that decommissioning efforts cannot work without more outside involvement. The Obama administration should reconsider its hesitance to join the British efforts and should suspend its ban on official contact with Hezbollah.
To be sure, Washington has many reasons not to involve itself with Hezbollah. President Barack Obama is already facing criticism at home for his willingness to negotiate with Iran and Syria and his hard line on Israel's settlements policy. Any willingness on his part to authorize official contact with Hezbollah - Iran's and Syria's proxy against Israel -- would be all the more suspect among his domestic political opponents.
But actively seeking to demilitarize Hezbollah non-coercively has its advantages. Besides stabilizing Lebanon, orchestrating a decommissioning process could help roll back Iranian influence in the country, which already seems to be loosening due to Iran's domestic discord and Hezbollah's own growing anxieties about its relationship with Tehran. Syria has also become strategically weaker in the wake of its 2005 withdrawal from Lebanon. Damascus's inclination to participate in the ongoing Turkish-brokered peace negotiations with Israel indicates that it may be ready to work with Washington. Furthermore, the Obama administration is under considerable pressure to reenergize the Arab-Israeli peace process. A credible framework for demilitarizing Hezbollah might lower Israel's threat perceptions with respect to Hezbollah -- and, by extension, Iran and Syria -- and improve the currently dim prospects for peace.
Additionally, some observers have linked the Western-backed Hariri coalition's relative success against Hezbollah in the recent election to international good will toward Obama. Washington's participation in demilitarization efforts might make them all the more appealing and could encourage other interested parties, such as the European Union, Turkey, and perhaps Qatar, to join in. With such an effort the United States would be able to do what other players, such as Saudi Arabia (which brokered the 1989 agreement ending Lebanon's civil war, created a framework for Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon, and called for disarmament of all militias) and the United Nations (which passed a resolution in 2006 to end the Hezbollah-Israel war and disarm Hezbollah) have not: mobilize sustained and broad support for Hezbollah's demilitarization. Such an inclusive effort might also convince Hezbollah that its future prospects depend on effective governance and rebuilding Lebanon's debt-ridden economy, not on its military arsenal.
For domestic political reasons and as a sound bargaining strategy, Washington would obviously have to treat Hezbollah with caution. Skeptics could credibly argue that, given Hezbollah's historical enmity toward the United States and the fact that it is not in immediate need of U.S. support, Washington should not consider approaching Hezbollah at all. Yet this warrants further scrutiny. Except for its suspected logistical support for the bombing of the Khobar Towers in 1996 and its alleged training of the Mahdi Army in Iraq several years ago, Hezbollah hasn't targeted the United States in a generation. Additionally, Hezbollah leaders undoubtedly fear that Israel will pay another, better calibrated visit, and might calculate that signing up to a demilitarization program would provide Hezbollah with at least some temporary immunity. Certainly, however, high-level contact is not in the cards -- nor should it be.
In this respect, the missteps of U.S. efforts in Northern Ireland are instructive. There, the Clinton administration dispatched a high-profile special envoy, George Mitchell, to take the lead in framing the peace process. President Bill Clinton even lent the effort personal support when he visited Belfast in November 1995. Thus, when the IRA broke its cease-fire by bombing London's Canary Wharf less than three months later, Washington was outraged.
Instead, the effort in Lebanon should be confined to back channels and implemented by mid-level U.S. officials until Hezbollah's willingness to cooperate has been established. Washington's activities should be coordinated with London's, and Israel should be kept informed throughout. In fact, to maximize Hezbollah's incentives to move forward, it would make sense to explore whether Israel would in principle agree to withdraw from the Shebaa Farms and refrain from attacking Lebanon if Hezbollah submitted to a decommissioning process. U.S. representatives could also indicate that the quality and quantity of American assistance to the Lebanese army would increase significantly if Hezbollah agreed to demilitarize. Once the groundwork has been laid, the State Department could discreetly dispatch higher-ranking officials to support the initiative through technical assistance modeled on Northern Ireland's independent commission for disarmament, headed by retired Canadian General John de Chastelain and former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari.
This kind of restrained and inconspicuous approach stands the best chance of being palatable to Hezbollah; the organization would be more inclined to go along with a demilitarization process involving quiet, negotiated decommissioning than one driven by grand démarches by outside powers. A quiet approach would also overcome U.S. domestic concerns about the program and would be circumspect enough to fireproof the administration if the process led nowhere. As a component of more expansive and inventive thinking about the Middle East peace process in general, gingerly testing Hezbollah's attitude toward disarmament could help reinvigorate American efforts in a critical region.