- The Washington Times - Monday, June 28, 2010

A senior Hezbollah leader in Lebanon has flatly rejected the idea of talking to Washington unless it revamps its Middle East policy, which his group says unfairly favors Israel.

“There is an American behavior that has to change first, and then we can discuss the possibility of a dialogue,” the organization’s deputy chief, Sheik Naim Qassem, told the Associated Press on Monday.

The Hezbollah official was dismissing suggestions from former and current U.S. officials about engaging the Iranian-backed Lebanese Shi’ite group, designated a terrorist organization by the State Department.

“America is playing the role of troublemaker in the region,” Mr. Qassem said. He added that his group is preparing for war with Israel “as if it is happening tomorrow,” though he said Lebanon’s “devastating defeat” in the 2006 war with the Jewish state made the prospect less likely.

While official U.S. policy remains non-engagement, John O. Brennan, deputy White House national security adviser for homeland security and counterterrorism, stoked speculation of a shift last month when he said the U.S. should seek to strengthen Hezbollah’s “moderate elements.”

In addition, former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker this month told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee he thinks the U.S. would gain from opening communication with Hezbollah, which participates in Lebanese politics while maintaining an independent militia with de-facto control over the country’s largely Shi’ite south.

“We cannot mess with our adversary’s mind if we are not talking to him,” he said. “Hezbollah is a part of the Lebanese political landscape, and we should deal with it directly.”

So far, administration officials have struck down rumors of any imminent opening to the group.

“Our policy is non-engagement with Hezbollah, for all the reasons you know, and I don’t anticipate that policy changing,” said Jeffrey Feltman, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, in the same hearing in which Mr. Crocker aired his views.

The reasons for the non-engagement policy with Hezbollah include its vow to destroy Israel, its status as an Iranian proxy and its smuggling of rockets through the Syrian border in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions before and after the 2006 war.

But Mr. Feltman, among others, allowed for the possibility that the policy could change should Hezbollah become “a normal part of the political fabric” in Lebanon.

That prospect seems distant, with Hezbollah offering few signs that it intends to relinquish its arsenal or its authority over the south, and Mr. Qassem’s comments reflect his group’s confidence.

“He’s turning down an offer that wasn’t made,” said Danielle Pletka, vice president for foreign policy and defense studies at the American Enterprise Institute. “They are a terrorist group, they wish to remain committed to terrorism, and it shouldn’t be a surprise to anybody — including John Brennan — that they would have nothing to say us.”

Others concur with Mr. Crocker that it would be mistaken to discount the possibility of productive talks with Hezbollah, while acknowledging that comments like Mr. Qassem’s sap any American appetite for such an exchange.

“Hezbollah’s policy of non-engagement is as unproductive as America’s policy of non-engagement,” said Steve Clemons, director of the New America Foundation’s American Strategy Program. “With statements like this, it only adds to the gridlock and the tension. It’s the kind of statement we’ve seen before, but it’s the kind of statement they accuse the U.S. of making.”

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