Abu Ali is a legendary Arab folk hero. He is the one that stands up for the weak and oppressed. Egypt’s former leader, Gamal abd al-Nasir, was also an Abu Ali, regardless of his repeated defeats and the calamities that he brought upon the Arabs. Yet this is so in a society that consecrates words at the expense of words, which blame others rather than itself. These days we have a new Abu Ali, in Hezbollah’s leader, Hasan Nasrallah.
Following the 2006 summer war between Israel and Hezbollah, in a moment of rare candor Nasrallah admitted that he would not have provoked the conflict had he known it would result in a full scale Israeli invasion. Then, something interesting happened as many commentators from both the U.S. and Israel spread the nonsense that Hezbollah didn’t really lose the war. And so a new Abu Ali was born with Nasrallah posing as the victor that he was not.
From the depths of the bunker in Beirut where this new Abu Ali remains in hiding after his celebrated “victory,” Nasrallah plots, threatens, and provokes. The truth is, however, that Nasrallah was, is, and will continue to be an agent of the Syrian-Iranian axis. And this is where the story becomes more serious and ominous.
Following the end of the 2006 war, Syria showed signs of a change of heart, as arms smugglings to Hezbollah through its territory appeared to dramatically decrease. Moreover, Syria participated in peace talks with the Olmert government even when Israel allegedly bombed the Syrian nuclear reactor in September 2007. Indeed, the talks continued after Hezbollah’s master terrorist, Imad Mughniyeh was assassinated in Damascus.
The reason for this was that contrary to the rhetoric, Asad understood that another conflict in Lebanon instigated by Iran and executed by Hezbollah could have devastating consequences for Syria. Asad also realized that the Bush and Olmert administrations acted in sync, which served to highlight his weakness and the effectiveness Israel’s deterrence. Under these circumstances, he chose to stand up to Iran’s pressures.
But everything changed following the 2008 presidential elections in the United States. The U.S. and Israel are no longer in sync and American-Syrian diplomatic relations have been developing without any prior conditions. The predictable result is that Bashar al-Asad jumped back into the warm embrace of Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. And Syria’s new strength through American compromise has guided Lebanon’s shaky coalition government back into the Iranian-Syrian axis.
And so, the Middle East’s new Abu Ali has returned to the limelight, issuing threats to resume hostilities against Israel that have been readily echoed by his Syrian and Iranian mentors. Yet, this time, something else happened. For the first time in memory, the Lebanese army—under Hezbollah’s influence—provoked a clash with the IDF, claiming the life of a senior Israeli officer. Israel’s reaction was muted and responsible. But make no mistake: Nasrallah and his mentors have crossed another line.
The U.S. should confront Lebanon with the stark choice between the West or Iran and Syria. The suspension of military aid to Lebanon is a welcome step but more should follow. Any further dialogue between the U.S. and Syria has to make clear that its continuing support for Hezbollah is a possible casus beli for Israel and should war break out, America will stand by Israel without calling for a premature end of hostilities as was the case during the 2006 war and more recent Gaza conflict. For this to happen, the close and strategic cooperation between Israel and the United States must be fully restored. This is a message Bashar al-Asad is very likely to understand.
As for the new Abu Ali, Nasrallah may continue to talk but actions are something else. The bunker where he hides could very well become his tomb in the next conflict, and there is precious little that his mentors will be able to do for him.
Dr. Josef Olmert is a JPC contributor and Adjunct Professor at American University. He is a well-known Israeli Middle East expert and brother of former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.