When Hassan Nasrallah talks, Lebanon listens. Such is the Hizabllah leader’s reputation for delivering on his promises that when Nasrallah vowed last month that he would produce evidence implicating Israel in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, the country readied itself for a political blockbuster. After all, Hariri’s murder by a massive car bomb on Valentine’s Day in 2005 was the first chapter of a Lebanese drama that culminated in a war with Israel in 2006 and nearly led to civil war in 2008. And the imminent release of the findings of a U.N. inquiry, which are rumored to finger members of Hizballah for the crime, has raised fears of a new chapter of instability in Lebanon.
Nasrallah’s press conference Monday night, Aug. 9, certainly had many elements of a high-stakes thriller. Nasrallah, who as the leader of a movement that has been the Jewish state’s most intractable and successful foe lives under the shadow of perennial threat of Israeli assassination, addressed a roomful of journalists by live telecast from a secret location. He presented more than two hours of videotaped confessions, analysis, maps and previously unreleased Israeli spy videos. It was an impressive performance for a man on the run. But unlike a summer blockbuster, Nasrallah’s show lacked a climactic ending.
Nasrallah’s indictment of Israel in the Hariri killing ran as follows: Since Hizballah forced Israel to retreat from its occupation of southern Lebanon in 2000, the Israelis have used an extensive spy network and electronic espionage to gather information and conduct assassinations. Israel’s goal, said Nasrallah, was to restart the sectarian civil war that ended in 1990, first by killing Hariri, Lebanon’s leading Sunni Muslim, and then by trying to assassinate Shi’ite leader Nabih Berri, the speaker of parliament. Nasrallah also linked Israel to a series of killings that followed Hariri’s death, mostly of politicians and activists belonging to the anti-Syrian, anti-Hizballah coalition that emerged after Hariri’s death. The Hizballah leader tried to make the case that Israel had failed to defeat Hizballah on the battlefield and so sought to instead weaken the Shi’ite militant group by sowing chaos in Lebanon.
Despite his promises, however, Nasrallah didn’t offer much that was new. In the past year, Hizballah and Lebanese security services have arrested several alleged Israeli spy rings, and much of Nasrallah’s evidence came from interrogations of these alleged operatives — and has previously been made available. Nasrallah used the confessions of those arrested to paint a picture of Israel focusing its intelligence resources less on Hizballah than on Lebanese politicians allied with Hariri and the U.S.-backed anti-Hizballah coalition that sprang up after his assassination. Why would Israel expend intelligence resources tracking people that in no way posed a threat to the Jewish state? Nasrallah suggested its goal was to turn Lebanese and international opinion against Hizballah and even spark civil war. And his biggest coup was the video he provided, supposedly intercepted by Hizballah from Israeli spy drones, showing an unhealthy interest in the homes and traveling routes used by Hariri, including the seaside road in Beirut where he was killed.
The special effects were worthy of a Pentagon briefing, but Nasrallah didn’t have much to link Israel to core pieces of this particular mystery. There was nothing about the huge explosive, the murder vehicle or the calls from eight mysterious cell phones believed to belong to the hit team monitoring Hariri’s car convoy as it drove through Beirut on the day of his death — and nothing about the suicide bomber himself, whose remains were scattered all over the site. In the parlance of a police procedural, not only was there no smoking gun, there was nothing to explain the massive, smoking crater in the middle of Beirut.
Still, even if it wasn’t a coup de théâtre, Nasrallah’s story will be compelling to many despite the quality of the evidence. It takes little to convince Lebanese that Israel conducts extensive intelligence-gathering and dirty-tricks operations in Lebanon, in part because Israeli almost certainly does.
Moreover, the international investigation into Hariri’s death has been viewed in Lebanon through the lens of its political divisions. The U.S. and other Western countries used the huge protest crowds that gathered in Beirut following Hariri’s death to pressure Syria to withdraw from Lebanon in 2005 and to pressure Hizballah to disarm. Those same countries also got the U.N. Security Council to commence the Hariri investigation. Almost immediately, the investigation went straight after Syria and its allies in Lebanon, resulting in the arrests of four top Lebanese generals who were held for four years without charge and later released when the testimony that had implicated them turned out to be suspect. Since then, rumors have grown that the investigation has switched course and is now focusing on Hizballah. After five years and hundreds of millions of dollars in expenses incurred in Lebanon alone, the investigation (now a tribunal located in the Hague) is finally expected to issue indictments, perhaps in the next month.
The prospect of the tribunal’s findings being issued has no doubt put Hizballah is an uncomfortable position, and Nasrallah’s reputation in the Arab world could lose some of its shine if the findings tell a story that casts Hizballah as the villains. But for now, the Hizballah leader has gotten out in front with a pre-emptive political cover story for why Hizballah will not cooperate if the tribunal fingers its members. After all, asked Nasrallah, why has the tribunal never investigated the possibility that Israel was involved in the killing?
Nasrallah may not have been a very convincing Perry Mason, but he doesn’t need to be. Regardless of the tribunal’s findings, Hizballah’s military dominance within Lebanon, its legions of supporters willing to sacrifice even their lives for “the resistance,” and its virtual veto power over the Lebanese government means the Nasrallah show will almost certainly be playing in Lebanese theaters for some time to come.