ANALYSIS: Hezbollah’s Short-Term Gains, Uncertain Future

Hezbollah has been on a roll recently, declaring victory after victory, but its long-term strategy is less certain and its recent gains may prove its ultimate undoing.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, in a rare public appearance Wednesday night, stood with the five Lebanese prisoners just released by Israel and declared that “the victory achieved in July 2006 is the main factor that produced today's victory.”

That victory: an exchange of the remains of two Israeli soldiers for five Lebanese prisoners and the remains of 199 Hezbollah and Palestinian fighters.

Hezbollah presented the prisoner swap as a validation of its decision in 2006 to launch a cross-border raid to kidnap Israeli soldiers. That resulting war led to what Hezbollah calls the "divine victory" — that is, that Hezbollah was still standing after a month-long war with Israel, a feat no Arab army had achieved.

But these self-declared victories have come at a price, and the group's ability to survive in the long-term in its current form is now less certain.

Hezbollah’s popularity has declined, as it left much of Lebanon and many of its admirers around the Arab world in distress when it turned its guns on fellow countrymen last May.

Its rationale that it maintained a huge paramilitary force to defend Lebanon from Israel was shattered when Hezbollah used its army to take over parts of West Beirut, a long way from the Israeli border to the south.

But that takeover and Hezbollah’s confrontation with the government of Fouad Siniora by force of arms did in fact lead to talks in Qatar that resulted in a long-sought "unity" government.

On Wednesday, the newly formed Lebanese cabinet met for a class photo, the first complete gathering of ministers since November 2006. The long-awaited cabinet, which sat unfilled for many months, includes 11 pro-Hezbollah ministers — another “victory” that gives the group the power to veto government decisions.

But now Hezbollah faces the task of carrying out the work of the people, in the interest of all Lebanese.

It will have to explain its strategic relationships with Iran and Syria and overcome a deep distrust of its military goals. It will have to change from a resistance group designed to protect the interests of its followers to a conventional political party ready to make compromises in the interest of all Lebanese. It is a change that establishment of the PLO in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank has shown to be difficult, bloody and uncertain.

Hezbollah knows that most Lebanese do not want another war with Israel, and the group must be aware that the bitter experience of 2006 has left Israeli forces in no mood to hold anything back if there is to be a next war.

And Wednesday’s prisoner exchange has left Hezbollah with one less reason to fight Israel, now that Lebanese prisoners have been released from Israeli jails. A move by Israel to pull out of the tiny sliver of land known as the Shebaa farms, encouraged by the U.S. and European powers, would leave Hezbollah with no territory to fight over.

The price may be too high to launch another round of hostilities, and the Lebanese are now looking for jobs, stability, an investment of the petrodollars sloshing around the region — and a reason to remain in the country at all.

The lesson of 15 years of civil war in Lebanon in the 1970s and '80s is that no party is strong enough to win on its own. The lesson of the last 15 years is that without political compromise in this tiny country, civil war remains an option.

Hezbollah now has to show it can become a constructive political force that will not resort to arms to get its way, and show to the Lebanese people that it is not dangerous for the country. As long as it believes it can continue its roll of victories, it may not believe it has to make the difficult changes it needs to make to move into the future.

John Fiegener is a FOX News bureau chief in Baghdad.