Israel's top ministers convening as tension escalates in Lebanon
Netanyahu concerned Hezbollah may try to 'take over' Lebanon after release of report implicating the group in the 2005 murder of former Lebanese PM.
The forum of seven senior ministers will convene Wednesday to discuss the security situation on Israel's northern front amid concerns that a report linking Hezbollah to the murder of a Lebanese prime minister could spark conflict.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the visiting Italian foreign minister Tuesday that Israel is concerned Hezbollah will "take over" Lebanon after the release of a report implicating Hezbollah in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in Beirut.
Canada's CBC broadcaster and other media organizations have said the Netherlands-based United Nations tribunal into Hariri's death is close to announcing indictments against a number of Hezbollah operatives.
A high-ranking Israeli official said Wednesday's forum of seven meeting was originally scheduled to be held with the full security cabinet. Given the sensitivity of the matter, however, a decision was later made to hold the meeting on a smaller scale.
Over the past few weeks Israeli defense and diplomatic officials have been closely watching developments in Lebanon. Sources in the Foreign Ministry and Military Intelligence believe that despite the growing tension in the country, neither Hezbollah nor any other player in Lebanon - Syria and Iran included - has any interest in the security status quo spinning out of control.
Netanyahu told Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini Tuesday that in order to extricate itself from the international pressure that would likely follow UN indictments, Hezbollah may try to undermine stability within Lebanon and could even try to assert control over the country.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak told a meeting of local officials in the Negev on Tuesday that Israel must ensure that tension within Lebanon does not spill across the border. "There are deep tensions within Lebanon surrounding the investigation of the Hariri murder," Barak said. "We - both in our intelligence and operational networks - need to be alert so conditions don't deteriorate, and to monitor the possibility that someone will try to divert that tension toward us."
Fred Hoff, a deputy to U.S. Mideast envoy George Mitchell responsible for Syria and Lebanon, visited Israel this week for meetings with high-level officials on developments in Lebanon. Among other things, Hoff asked that Israel's withdrawal from the divided border village of Ghajar be accelerated in a bid to strengthen the government of Prime Minister Saad Hariri in the face of Hezbollah.
Hariri denounced the CBC report on Tuesday, and said he remains supportive of Wissam Hassan, the Lebanese intelligence chief and his father's chief of protocol who was also implicated in the assassination.
"I personally think that the media leaks do not serve the course of justice," Hariri said, adding that he has "complete faith" in the intelligence chief.
Hariri will leave Saturday for an official visit to Iran, following the controversial visit of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to southern Lebanon last month.
Michel Aoun, a general and Hezbollah-allied lawmaker, made the surprising announcement on Tuesday that in light of the allegations, Hassan should be questioned. Aoun said he expects "answers" from the intelligence chief.
The CBC described its investigation as relying on interviews with multiple sources involved in the UN inquiry into the killing, along with some of the inquiry's own records. The network's probe, it said, found examples of timidity, bureaucratic inertia, and incompetence bordering on gross negligence within the UN inquiry.
Arab and Muslim states - with the exception of Iran - have been trying to bring calm to Lebanon throughout the current instability. Lebanese media reported yesterday that Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia, son of the ailing King Abdullah, arrived early this week in Damascus for meetings with Syrian President Bashar Assad on the situation in Lebanon.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan will arrive on Wednesday on an official visit to Beirut in what is also being described as an attempt at inter-Lebanese reconciliation, and the Qatari prime and foreign ministers are also scheduled to visit the country this week.