Both the Obama administration and American Jewish groups are pressing European governments with new vigor to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, following an investigation pointing to Hezbollah’s role in a terror attack against Israelis in Bulgaria last July.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, just settled into his new post, set the tone for a coordinated campaign, using the investigation, conducted by Bulgaria and released February 4, as his cudgel.
“We need to send an unequivocal message to this terrorist group that it can no longer engage in despicable actions with impunity,” Kerry said in a February 5 statement. It is a message, he added pointedly, aimed “particularly at our partners in Europe.”
Kerry’s statement came alongside a push from Jewish groups, which were directly apprised of the report’s findings by the Bulgarian government before its release. Just one day after Kerry’s statement, Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, took the message to French President Francois Hollande when he received a Legion of Honor decoration from the president.
Hollande would not commit, saying only that France would “study the evidence” from the attack in Burgas, Bulgaria, before making a decision, according to a press release.
American officials were nevertheless cautiously optimistic that the investigation’s findings may help them to at long last convince the Europeans to clamp down on Hezbollah operations on their soil, as Washington does here.
“It is not going to put Hezbollah out of business,” said Daniel Benjamin, who served until recently as the State Department’s coordinator for counterterrorism, “but I do think it would have significant repercussions. After all, European blood has now been shed on European soil by this group.”
Designation of Hezbollah as a terrorist group by Europe would be a blow to the group’s fundraising ability and to its international legitimacy, said Benjamin.
European nations have resisted pressure to make this move for decades. The governments involved fear that they would lose influence in the Middle East if they were to act against the group. They also worry that such a move would increase instability in Lebanon, where Hezbollah is based.
As a practical matter, European officials also calculate that turning a blind eye on Hezbollah’s activities in Europe ensures the group does not target European countries.