(January 27, 2019 / JNS) After a notable absence that lasted for more than two months and crazy rumors that he was stricken with cancer and might already have passed away, Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah made an appearance Saturday night on Lebanon’s Al Mayadeen television, looking very much like himself.
Truthfully, it must be said that the leader’s public appearance, his tone, and familiar body language did not seem to support the conclusion to which one Saudi media pundit jumped somewhat hastily—that it was a double. That seemed to be more a Saudi wish than sober observation.
On the other hand, there is no doubt that the interview itself, like the hysterical promotional campaign for the speech that ran on Al Mayadeen, whose owner is a close friend of Nasrallah’s, had one goal: to prove that Nasrallah is alive, kicking and in control.
Someone up top in Hezbollah realized that silence of more than two months by someone who had gotten his supporters accustomed to frequent speeches could be doing some damage. Even if he isn’t in the best of health, it would be better for him to speak. There are plenty of reasons to assume that if that consideration hadn’t been factored in, Nasrallah would have preferred to keep quiet for as long as possible. Developments in the region and in his own circle in the past few months are inconvenient for him, and it’s hard for even a skilled speaker such as he is to explain away what is inconvenient.
First, Israel exposed his tunnels. This was nothing less than a public humiliation for the strategy of the organization, which had hoped the project would stay off anyone’s radar. How does it explain the fact that its operatives—who under U.N. Resolution 1701 are not supposed to be in South Lebanon—are digging attack tunnels under the border into Israeli territory, when any scenario of war between the two countries would see Lebanon razed to the ground? ”Nasrallah is dragging all of Lebanon into a dark tunnel,” his critics said.
On Saturday, the Hezbollah leader made a valiant effort to minimize the tunnels issue, calling it “a matter that was blown out of proportion” and “only a minor element that would help Hezbollah in its overall plan to conquer the Galilee.” He mocked the Israel Defense Forces, which “took so long to expose the tunnels.” Not a word about the intelligence that allowed Israel to reveal the secret.
These are difficult days for Nasrallah. Iran, Hezbollah’s sponsor, is becoming increasingly isolated in the world. The U.S. sanctions and the economic crisis in Iran have already hurt the financial assistance Tehran provides to Nasrallah, and it also seems that Iranian military aid to Hezbollah will keep running up against Israel’s determination to thwart it at any price.
During his protracted silence, Nasrallah was betting that his fortunes would improve. U.S. President Donald Trump announced that U.S. forces would be leaving Syria, and apparently by accident added that Iran would now be able to do whatever it wanted in Syria. The Russians expressed open dissatisfaction with Israel’s ongoing strikes on Iranian and Hezbollah targets in Syria, and a spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry called them an attack on the sovereignty of a foreign nation.
But in the meantime, there has been an upheaval. Trump is seriously considering leaving the important American base in place in al-Tanf, where the Iraqi, Syrian, and Jordanian borders meet. This means the ground corridor Iran used to supply weapons to Hezbollah via Syria and southern Lebanon will remain blocked.
And Russia’s deputy foreign minister, in stark contrast to what the ministry’s spokeswoman said, told CNN that Russia’s ties with Iran could not be considered an “alliance,” and moreover, that Russia is not dismissing the importance of Israel’s security.
Nasrallah might have preferred to keep quiet, but circumstances dictated otherwise. It won’t be long before he goes back to his same old threats.
Hezbollah, he says, has no interest in launching a war, but will respond without proportion if Israel attacks targets in Lebanon. He is also saying something new: that Hezbollah will respond if Israel attacks Hezbollah targets in Syria; that Hezbollah has precision missiles ready for the next conflict; he is warning Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu against making the mistake of a military gambit to “promote himself in the election campaign”; and he is threatening that in the next war, “all Palestine will be under threat.”
For that, he didn’t need to break his silence.
Oded Granot is a journalist and international commentator on the Middle East.