Hezbollah could strike Israel to divert Hariri probe
Report that Hezbollah may have been behind assassination of ex-PM may hurt group in upcoming elections.
A series of recent developments in Lebanon, against the backdrop of the country's parliamentary election on June 7, have raised tension along the northern border. And while the prevailing view in Israel's intelligence community is that Hezbollah has no interest in escalation right now, it is nevertheless following the situation closely.
Summer is often a hot time in the Middle East. The Second Lebanon War broke out in summer 2006, and the tense summer of 2007 culminated in Israel's air strike on a Syrian nuclear facility - though that elicited no Syrian response. This year, international worries center on the tensions between Israel and Iran over the Tehran's nuclear program.
But the northern front actually has the potential to flare up even more rapidly than Iran. Though the Iranian issue makes the headlines, nothing is expected to happen for at least the next several months, while Washington tries to talk with Tehran. Only then, if ever, will the possibility of Israeli military action in Iran arise.
In Lebanon, in contrast, events are occurring at a dizzying pace. Over the last two weeks alone, there have been a wave of reports about the exposure of "Israeli spy rings" in Lebanon. The German newspaper Der Spiegel reported that a UN inquiry committee concluded Hezbollah, not Syria, was behind the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri; a senior Hezbollah official charged that Israel is seeking to assassinate the organization's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, and threatened that doing so would ignite a regional war; Egypt uncovered a Hezbollah cell in its territory; and the Israel Defense Forces mulled extending the term of GOC Northern Command Gadi Eizenkot by a year due to the tensions in the north.
The Israel Defense Forces will also be conducting a nationwide military exercise next week that simulates rocket and missile attacks on Israeli towns from several fronts simultaneously.
The German newspaper report presumably did not take Israel by complete surprise. Although Israeli intelligence shared the UN's initial assessment that Syria was behind Hariri's murder, there were dissenting views. A document submitted to the chief of Military Intelligence in late 2001, more than three years before the murder, predicted that Hariri might be murdered by Hezbollah. And shortly after the assassination, a senior MI official submitted a minority opinion that blamed Hezbollah rather than Syria for the killing.
Hariri was killed by a bomb placed in a truck that was stolen from Japan, and the MI official's view was that only Hezbollah, a globe-spanning terrorist organization, would have been able to pull off such a sophisticated, expensive attack, which included procuring accurate intelligence about Hariri's movements. The official also opined that the attack served Iranian interests, and that Hezbollah had an interest in creating trouble for Syria.
Unless the UN officially confirms it, the news report is unlikely to dramatically affect the outcome of the election. Hezbollah has predictably termed it a "fabrication" concocted to sway the outcome of the election, and even long-time Hezbollah foes like Druze leader Walid Jumblatt agree that it could be no more than an effort by foreign agents to influence the vote.
Hezbollah is expected to gain seats in the election, and could even head the next coalition government. But official UN confirmation of the report could alter this picture, causing some Shi'ite voters to switch to the rival Shi'ite party, Amal, and floating Sunni, Druze and Christian voters to switch to the anti-Syrian coalition led by Saad Hariri.
If that happens, Hezbollah might decide to escalate the conflict with Israel to divert attention from the murder rap. There are precedents for this: Under domestic pressure to disarm in spring 2006, it responded with a cross-border raid in July and kidnapped two Israeli soldiers, sparking the Second Lebanon War.
The defense establishment is also discussing the ramifications of a Hezbollah victory. On one hand, this would be an Iranian achievement, and thus a negative development. On the other hand, it could ease international constraints on IDF action in Lebanon should such an operation become necessary.