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msnbc.com
updated 11/3/2006 2:02:09 PM ET 2006-11-03T19:02:09

Hezbollah Secretary-General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah delivered an ultimatum to Lebanon's U.S.-friendly government on Tuesday: Either include more of Hezbollah's allies in the formation of a unity government by mid-November, or prepare for street demonstrations demanding new elections.

Immediately, the U.S. State Department criticized Syria and Iran — both longtime Hezbollah supporters — of trying to overthrow Lebanon's democratically elected government. Both countries denied that claim.

Beyond the diplomatic back and forth, one thing was clear: Two and a half months after its war of attrition with Israel, Nasrallah's move was a clear consolidation of domestic political gains and loyalty earned during the 34-day conflict.

Rami Khouri, editor-at-large of Beirut's “Daily Star” newspaper — widely regarded as the region's most important English-language daily — discussed the implications of Nasrallah’s move, as well as its potential impact on the the fragile state of Lebanon’s democracy, with MSNBC's Seth Colter Walls.

What have been the practical consequences of last summer's war with Israel? How does Hezbollah find itself in a position to be making the moves it's making?
What we're seeing now is the continuation of the battles that took place this summer between Israel and its allies — the U.S. and Britain among them — and Hezbollah and its allies.

In one sense, this summer's war was a surrogate war between the U.S. and Iran. And now that's deepened into a regional cold war between Israel, the U.S., Britain, some elements of the Lebanese government— all versus Hezbollah, Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, Syria, Iran, as well as some nationalist and progressive forces that are opposed to U.S. influence.

Is the fact that Hezbollah has defined itself first and foremost as an anti-American force responsible for its success in attracting such a diverse following?  
Yes. Nasrallah has actually been very clear about this for many months, going back before the war with Israel, even. Hezbollah sees itself — and explains itself — explicitly as working for all Arabs and Muslims to fight a political, predatory plan by the U.S. The "new Middle East project" is what they call it. And that has resonance for a lot of people.

Two months ago the target was Israel. Today the Lebanese government is the immediate target, since they see it as a Trojan Horse for the American project.

Basically, Hezbollah has come to represent a series of very different forces, all focused on resisting the Americans and the Israelis. So they've attracted some nationalist forces, democratic forces, as well as Islamist currents, all of whom are working together, loosely, because they basically support the idea of resisting the U.S., and resisting the Israeli occupation [of Shebaa Farms, a small tract of land that Hezbollah claims is Lebanese, and that the U.N says is part of occupied Syria].

A lot of different situations have been combined — Lebanon, Palestine, Syria and Iran. These have all kind of meshed together into one conglomeration of issues, and they're all very much linked to the point where it's much more difficult to address any one of them on its own.

You raise the issue of addressing this mesh of conflicts. What, in your opinion, should be "job one" for the U.S. going forward?
I think "job one" is to understand why movements like Hezbollah have become so popular and legitimate.

The answer is that they play four or five functions at once. They represent their local communities; they represent a Shiite empowerment movement that has been going on since the 1970s; they represent a strong voice of support for Palestinians; they represent a movement that is pushing very hard for efficient government. Finally, they represent that sentiment of anti-American-ism that is widely held inside the region, and must be addressed.

The U.S. State Department has expressed worry that the threat of protests will lead to violence in the streets of Beirut. What do you see happening if demonstrations do take place?
My gut feeling is that, first of all, this is, for now, probably a good sign, in the sense that Hezbollah is moving more into the political mold. They are engaging politically, even if they're using tools like threats, ultimatums, cajoling, pressuring, enticing and all kinds of other sticks and carrots. We see that coercive, bullying trend in the U.S., too, during election season. So it's common to all politics.

At this point, I'm not particularly worried about the idea of demonstrations. Street demonstrations can be used to make a point, and it's better to demonstrate than fire missiles. And up until now, Hezbollah's domestic political program has been extremely disciplined — extremely well-managed and orderly.

Obviously what's new is that they're always going to get an American response, which shows that we're now in the regional cold war, a new cold war in the Middle East.

Nasrallah said on Tuesday: "The ruling majority [of Lebanon] ... has lost all credibility in the street." From where you sit, does this ring true? If so, do you expect Prime Minister Fouad Siniora to accept Hezbollah's demand for a new Cabinet?
You know, I think it's maybe all about political statements this week — in Lebanon and the U.S. It's a bit exaggerated, you know? Some people may doubt Siniora's legitimacy, but it's not fully true. Some people have less faith in his ability to mediate the interests of the Americans, the French, and others — but most people recognize the government as legitimate.

He [Siniora] did a lot of things during the war [with Israel] that were quite impressive. And so his credibility has been pretty good. This is just Hezbollah using him as a punching bag for the political battles that its allies like Syria need to have fought.

One motive the U.S. is putting forward regarding Syria’s alleged interest in overthrowing Lebanon's government is that they'd like to derail an international tribunal over the assassination of former Lebanese Premier Rafik Hariri, who was killed in a massive explosion in downtown Beirut in 2005. A lot of fingers have been pointed at Syria over that killing. Are the latest moves by Hezbollah motivated by an effort to thwart the creation of an international tribunal?
There's no doubt about it in my mind. It's a factor. Whether it's 100 percent the reason, or 80 percent, or less — it's hard to tell.

As for the issue of an international tribunal to finish this whole investigation [of Hariri's assassination]: The Syrians are going to use every option to stall or minimize it. It's too early to tell how effective they're going to be.

I don't know exactly why Hezbollah appears to be so close to the Syrians, unless Hezbollah itself thinks it will be targeted by the tribunal. Or perhaps they're just being loyal to the Syrians, since the Iran-Syrian-Hezbollah front proved so effective on the battlefield with Israel this summer.

But the international tribunal is going to happen, no doubt about it. Internationally consensus has mandated investigation into the effort. There's been a ton of money and effort spent on this. It's unprecedented historically, to have the UN investigate and demand that one state [Syria] explicitly provide information. So the Syrians are worried, no doubt about it. And Syria and Hezbollah are pretty clear — they don't mince words. They think it's a set-up job by the U.S.-aligned powers.

But I don't think they can succeed in stopping the tribunal. A majority of Lebanese, as well as the majority of the world, want an international tribunal. There's a clear consensus that this should happen, that we should find the killers and hold them accountable. But, of course, there should also be a presumption of innocence until then.

MSNBC TV's Seth Colter Walls worked for Rami Khouri at Beirut's Daily Star newspaper during 2004. Prior to joining MSNBC, he was editor of Mideastwire.com, a Web-based service that translates key Arabic- and Persian-language stories from print, radio and television media in the Middle East.

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