But with this strength has come reduced legitimacy. Hizballah had always claimed that its weapons existed only for action against Israel. Its takeover of west Beirut in June 2008 belied this claim. More profoundly, the indictment of four movement members this year for the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri damages the movement’s standing among non-Shia in Lebanon and beyond it.
Hizballah has also come out badly from the political upheavals in the Arab world this year. The movement has strongly supported the Assad regime in Syria. This has accentuated its being seen as part of the largely Shia bloc led by Iran. Should the Assad regime fall and be replaced by a Sunni regime, this would increase the organization’s isolation and be a heavy blow for the pro-Iranian alliance.
In addition, Hizballah militants are training Iraqi Shia terrorists to fight the Americans in Iraq. There are rumors of its involvement in repression in Syria. It rules by fear in Lebanon, creating resentment and enemies rather than letting Hizballah play the part of a patriotic defender of the country.
So Hizballah is physically stronger than in 2006, but it is also more vulnerable.
In February 2008 its most senior military activist, Imad Mughniya, was assassinated in Damascus. Hizballah, blaming Israel, wants revenge for this. This could be the spark for a renewed conflict.
Should conflict with Israel return, it would acquire dimensions that would make 2006 look like a small rehearsal. This time around, Israel would be likely to regard the conflict as a state-to-state war– the first between Israel and an Arab state since 1973.
For the moment, Israel and Hizballah-controlled Lebanon watch each other across the border. The frontier is unusually quiet, but permanently tense. So if war comes, Hizballah will enter it physically stronger than in 2006, but also politically more isolated, more exposed, and hence more vulnerable. As for Israel it will be at this point, and only at this point, that it will be possible to examine the claims of greater readiness, better planning and sharper intelligence against the test of reality.