Spy scandal a sign of Hezbollah’s mid-life crisis

Posted January 6th, 2015 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing


[Published in Time magazine]

The Party of God was set up to fight Israel but is now a large organisation with a massive budget

For five years, Hezbollah has vowed in fiery speeches to exact revenge for Israel’s assassination of its top military strategist in 2010. Each anniversary passed with Hezbollah’s threatened attacks mysteriously foiled: operatives rolled up in Bangkok and Cyprus, and another mastermind murdered near his home in Beirut.

A recent revelation suggests the failure wasn’t so mysterious after all: a Hezbollah official responsible for the revenge attacks might have been on Israel’s payroll the whole time.

The unmasking of the Israeli spy in Hezbollah’s uppermost ranks — leaked in media reports in December and indirectly confirmed over the weekend by Hezbollah’s deputy leader — points to Hezbollah’s biggest long-term problem: its size, wealth and power have made it vulnerable to infiltration, corruption and careerists.

The militant organization, whose name means Party of God, was founded in 1982 to resist the Israeli occupation of south Lebanon but it has grown into an entrenched and wealthy part of the Lebanese establishment. Now in its fourth decade, Hezbollah has more power than its founders could have dreamed.

But no longer a compact revolutionary movement, Hezbollah must now grapple with the consequences of growth and longevity. Some supporters now take Hezbollah for granted while the party’s swelling ranks of cadres and fighters contain opportunists and careerists.

Hezbollah has become a state in all but name. It deploys troops to fight in a foreign war in Syria, it is a power-broker in Lebanon’s national government and it struggles to satisfy constituents who have grown accustomed to a higher, and safer, standard of living. It is subject to the same temptations and vulnerabilities as Arab governments and other legacy actors in the Middle East. The intelligence war with Israel marks just one particularly colorful and acute sign of its approaching middle age.

Hezbollah began to suspect it was compromised after a series of inexplicable setbacks, including the capture of two of its agents following a bombing in Burgas, Bulgaria in 2012. In order to track down the mole, Hezbollah fed false information to one of its officials, Mohammed Shawraba, about weapons shipments in Syria. Israel bombed the false target and after a seven-month investigation, Hezbollah arrested Shawraba.

The double agent might have foiled as many as five planned retaliations by Hezbollah, according to reports that also tied him to the two most damaging Israeli strikes against Hezbollah since the 2006 war: the assassinations of military strategist Imad Mughniyeh in Damascus in 2008 and of Hezbollah technology mastermind Hassan Laqees in Beirutat the end of 2013.

Yet it’s the parade of related cases that have piled up since the last major conflict between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006 that suggest something broader is afoot. Hezbollah revealed in 2011 that it caught some of its operatives cooperating with the CIA, meeting at a Pizza Hut on the edge of south Beirut to sell Hezbollah secrets to the Americans.

A trusted car dealer in southern Lebanon sold senior Hezbollah officials cars that had Israeli GPS trackers in them. He was arrested by the party in 2009.

Another Lebanese man was revealed to have worked as a spy for the Israelis, monitoring traffic on key roads to the Syrian border.

A financial scandal erupted at the same period, in 2009, when a Ponzi scheme collapsed and erased the savings of many of Hezbollah’s middle-class constituents. The scheme was run by Salah Ezzedine, a well-connected businessman (nicknamed Hezbollah’s Bernie Madoff) who had persuaded senior Hezbollah officials to invest their money with him, and who had founded a publishing house named after party leader Nasrallah’s son. Ezzedine lost between $700 million and $1 billion, according to news reports at the time.

A final straw came in 2012 when a senior Hezbollah official who had been embezzling money fled to Israel. Reports suggest he was stealing for his own benefit, pure and simple, but when he was about to get caught he fled to Hezbollah’s greatest enemy with his money and party documents.

All these cases point in one direction: toward more corruption and more Israeli infiltration.

Hezbollah’s initial appeal in the 1980s and 1990s was its incorruptibility and zeal. In a country dominated by kleptocratic warlords, Hezbollah stood out in its first two decades as an organization whose leaders did not care to enrich themselves. Their first priority was to expel the occupying Israelis. Their second was to help their suffering constituents, most of them Shia Muslims displaced by the civil war and crowded into miserable slums on the edges of Beirut. In those first decades, Hezbollah brought sewers, electricity and clean water to south Beirut, and its leaders lived simply.

Today, things are different. At the very top, Nasrallah lives in hiding, and by all reports remains committed to the group’s humble ethic. But the organization he runs is awash in money. After the 2006 war, Iran flooded Hezbollah with millions of dollars to rebuild homes and roads. Since 2011 there’s been yet another burst of spending linked to the war in Syria. Over the objections of many Lebanese — and the grumbling of some supporters who thought Hezbollah should maintain its focus on Israel — Hezbollah dispatched troops to fight on the regime’s side in the Syrian civil war. At first the deployment was kept secret, but today Hezbollah openly sends troops and celebrates its members martyred in Syria. The organization has dramatically increased its spending on fighters and their families and has expanded the size of its military force in order to maintain a deterrent against Israel while fighting in Syria. Hezbollah has become a standing army capable of fighting a war on two fronts where it was once a guerrilla army. That’s an expensive development and not one that necessarily carries the same appeal as Hezbollah did when it was fighting a war of resistance on its home territory against a much stronger Israeli occupation force.

Today, it appears, there are Hezbollah insiders willing to sell crucial secrets to the enemy. There are others who seem happy to siphon money out of the Party of God’s pockets for their own enrichment, just like operatives in all the rest of Lebanon’s notoriously corrupt factions.

In comments over the weekend to Hezbollah’s “Nour” radio station, the party’s number-two, Naim Qassem, said that Hezbollah was made up of fallible humans but was able to contain the “limited” fallout of the spy cases.

“Hezbollah has worked intensely on battling espionage among its ranks and in its entourage. Some cases surfaced, and they are very limited cases,” he said. “There is no party in the world as big and sophisticated as Hezbollah that was able to stand with the same steadfastness.”

That makes sense as spin, and Hezbollah can obviously survive — the question is, with how much damage.

Until the 2006 war, Hezbollah successfully stood apart in Lebanon. It was a Shia organization, but it opposed sectarianism. Even those who didn’t share Hezbollah’s dedication to fighting Israel recognized that the militant group placed that goal over its own power and enrichment.

In its rise to power, however, Hezbollah has relied on support from some of Lebanon’s most corrupt factions, including the Shia Amal Movement and the Christian Free Patriotic Movement.

Today, Hezbollah is a party of the establishment, deeply invested in a Lebanese order that depends on patronage and sectarian balancing. It is unlikely that corruption and spy scandals will unseat Hezbollah from its dominant position in Lebanon. But Hezbollah’s descent from the moral high ground it claims as unimpeachable standard-bearer of the Lebanese resistance seems only a matter of time.

Despite Strategic Convergence, Israel-Egypt Ties Face Tactical Strains

Posted April 30th, 2014 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

[Briefing for World Politics Review.]

Egypt’s Tahrir Square uprising in January 2011 sent waves of anxiety coursing through the Israeli establishment. By mid-February, a close partner had been deposed in Cairo, and popular Egyptian sentiment demanded a tough, polemical line against Israel: no more gas deals, no security cooperation, no political collaboration. The strategic relationship reached its nadir that fall, when a crowd in September stormed the Israeli Embassy while the Egyptian military stood by. A phone call from Washington was required to resolve that crisis, prompting the Egyptians to intervene before any Israelis were injured.

Fast-forward to today, and the Israel-Egypt strategic relationship appears to be back on the same consistent if occasionally bumpy track it followed for most of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s three decades in power.

Egypt is poised for another round of outright military rule, this time by retired Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, a strongman who for now can ignore public opinion along with complicating factors like political parties and open dissent. Moreover, el-Sissi, expected to sweep to the presidency in elections May 26-27, appears to hate Islamists as much as Israel does; under his management, Egypt has pursued the Muslim Brotherhood perhaps more intensively than Israel has gone after Hamas.

But beneath the surface, significant factors are tugging at the relationship. Unless it is renegotiated, it is likely to suffer from continued strategic drift, tactical challenges and political misunderstandings. Strategically, leaders in Egypt and Israel will have to articulate whether they see their partnership as a union of minority regimes against Islamist masses, or whether there is a broader and more compelling basis for the partnership. Tactically, both countries desperately need a more effective way to get a grip on the Sinai Peninsula. And politically, both governments will find the relationship under increasing pressure because of public opposition and strains with Washington, which provides the relationship’s ballast and cornerstone.

Strategically, the relationship between Egypt and Israel revolves around a shared interest in managing rather than resolving the Palestinian question. The two states also share a common aversion to Islamist politics, and, except during the short-lived presidency of Mohammed Morsi in Egypt, both have viewed the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas as a threat. These shared interests drive the Israel-Egypt relationship more than does the military aid from Washington that grew out of the Camp David Accords, which amounted to $3.1 billion to Israel and $1.5 billion to Egypt last year. Today, the security establishments of both Israel and Egypt view their U.S. subsidies as an earned right rather than a bribe, and would continue to see shared interests between their countries in the unlikely event that U.S. aid payments ceased. Nevertheless, a shared aversion to Islamists and a common line of credit from a U.S. government widely disparaged in both Egypt and Israel is hardly a robust basis for a strategic partnership.

The tactical problems multiply the pressure. Israel needs a quiet border with Egypt and can still rely on the Egyptian army to act as an ally rather than an enemy. But the Egyptian state has proved incapable of either pacifying or modernizing Sinai, and often engages in behavior that intensifies the threat from the region. Egypt’s current counterinsurgency campaign on the peninsula is a case in point; so far it has radicalized and alienated even more of Sinai’s inhabitants while doing little to curb the violent jihadist groups that have armed and trained there and launched attacks from the peninsula into the rest of Egypt as well as Gaza and Israel. A quiet Sinai is something Egypt wants and simply cannot deliver. This failure creates real security pressure for Egypt and Israel both.

Finally, political accountability within each state serves as a strong countervailing pressure against the relationship between them. In Israel, an increasingly right-wing public expresses skepticism of the “cold peace” with Israel’s Arab partners in the Palestinian Authority, Jordan and Egypt. In Egypt, public sentiment runs strongly against the relationship with Israel and in favor of a Palestinian state. Outside of the security establishment, few Egyptians see any reason to provide help to Israel; they oppose Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory, and they see no direct dividends to Egypt for its support of Israel. 

Politically, Israel’s maximalist stance toward the Palestinians makes it all but impossible for an Arab leader to enjoy an amicable and open relationship with Israel; only undemocratic leaders who are not concerned with domestic accountability can do so. Today Egypt’s relationship with Israel depends on stifling Egyptian public opinion, which remains unconvinced of the utility of a peace treaty entering its fourth decade.

For now, the security establishments of Egypt and Israel still cooperate closely. But profound distrust has flared on both sides, among both the public and the political elite. Both governments need to find a more compelling basis for the relationship and do more legwork to create a narrative of public support, especially in Egypt. If not, the relationship will continue to degrade, fueling illiberalism and authoritarianism while delivering diminishing returns in military cooperation and anti-jihadi operations. 

Israel and Egypt are not likely to return to the state of conflict between them that lasted from 1948 until 1978. But the dysfunctional relationship has relied excessively on secretive military-military contacts, which have failed to make headway on the most pressing security concern that joins Egypt and Israel. The storming of the Israeli Embassy in Cairo in 2011 was a prelude to today’s implosion in Sinai, which affects Egypt even more than Israel. If the two governments can’t find a way to manage this shared threat, it augurs poorly for the prospects for cooperation in the future.

Thanassis Cambanis is a fellow at The Century Foundation. His next book, “Once Upon a Revolution: An Egyptian Story,” chronicles political activism after the fall of Hosni Mubarak, and will be published in January.

Egypt & Syria on For Your Ears Only

Posted February 4th, 2013 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

David Alpern’s show this weekend wonders what on earth Morsi is thinking, and what really happened with Israel’s airstrikes on Syria. Listen to our conversation here.

4 Lessons from the Israel-Hamas deal

Posted October 20th, 2011 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

Hundreds of Palestinian prisoners have been released and Gilad Shalit is home. How will this deal shape regional dynamics in the years to come? I’ve been studying “engagements with hostile non-state actors” for several years (another name for the subject is “talking to terrorists”), and like the many scholars and diplomats who have written on the subject, I have plumbed the yawning crevasse between rhetoric and practice. Western nations don’t talk to groups they’ve designated as terrorists, unless those groups have something they want. Historically, the U.S. and Israel almost always talk to their enemies.

What can we expect as strategic payoff from the Hamas-Israel prisoner exchange?

1. Israel’s enemies know that hostages are their best investment. Hezbollah reaped an asymmetrical deal in 2008 that did wonders to consolidate its power in Lebanon, trading two dead Israeli soldiers for live prisoners and nearly 200 bodies. The Hamas trade values one living captured Israeli as equal to about 1,000 living Palestinian prisoners. Hamas, Hezbollah, and other resistance groups now have every incentive to capture Israelis, dead or alive, and barter them. It’s officially an established tactic. “If one episode of this epic is finished there are others that we will go through till all prisoners are realized,” Hamas said in a statement published on its website. Hezbollah was equally direct, listing three decades of prisoner swaps and declaring, “These deals, along with the accord achieved today, have taught Zionist entity that the Israeli troops are under the reach of resistance heroes, who proved that this enemy doesn’t understand but the language of power.”

2. Force is better than politics at kick-starting negotiations. Peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority have gone nowhere for years. Mahmoud Abbas’ application for statehood was treated almost like a declaration of war. Meanwhile, the Palestinian faction that actually acts like it’s at war with Israel and denies its right to exist extracted a favorable deal for itself after five years of negotiating over its hostage.

3. Corollary: Israel responds to violence. Hamas has argued since 2005 that its rockets and other attacks from Gaza drove Israel to dismantle its settlements there. That argument has an echo in Israel’s withdrawal from South Lebanon in 2000 and disastrous battlefield performance against Hezbollah in 2006. Those, like Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who argue for a political rather an armed resistance, will have an even harder time now.

4. Egypt is more a bystander than a player on Israel-Palestine. There was some analytical hot air about the boost this deal will give its brokers in Cairo and Gaza, but let’s be pragmatic. Hamas is in trouble with its constituents in Gaza and the enthusiasm for the deal is unlikely to reverse the steady erosion of the Hamas government’s popularity in the strip. Similarly, the military rulers in Egypt were praised for spurring along the role, but their popularity depends on whether they secure Egypt. If Hamas moves its headquarters from Damascus to Cairo, then Egypt might gain some leverage.

Rather than a breakthrough, this should be perceived as historically continuous with previous deals, including the 2008 release of Samir Quntar to Hezbollah and previous swaps of Israeli corpses for prisoners in 1996, 1998, and 2004. In short, this deal makes quick shrift of the fiction that Israel “doesn’t talk to terrorists,” and it reinforces the conflict dynamic.

(Originally published here in The Atlantic.)