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The crisis that Hezbollah sparked in Lebanon this week reflects the impossible situation that prevails in our neighbor to the north.

It is a multiethnic polity that for decades attempted to maintain a false but stabilizing balance among Maronite Christians, Sunnis and Shi'ites (and last but not least, Druze ); it is a protectorate of Syria, which never recognized Lebanon's independence; it is torn by civil wars and fighting among family militias; it has repeatedly been forced to request Western or Arab intervention; and it capitulated to a takeover by the PLO, which established a state within a state - "Fatahland" - in south Lebanon.

The Israel Defense Forces' invasion of Lebanon in 1982, thanks to a scandalous decision by the government of Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, spurred the rise of the Shi'ite militias - first Amal, and later Hezbollah. Revolutionary Iran took Hezbollah under its wing, and Jerusalem insisted on elevating a young, talented and energetic leader, Hassan Nasrallah, to head the organization in place of Abbas Musawi, whom Israel assassinated.

Gradually, Nasrallah and his men effectively took control of Beirut.

The Second Lebanon War of 2006 did not change this fact. Incredibly, neither did the developments that followed the murder of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri: the departure of Syrian forces from Lebanon, the establishment of a movement headed by Hariri's son, Saad, and the latter's rise to the premiership.

Saad Hariri ruled by leave of his father's murderers and of Syria.

Or at least, he did until this week, when Nasrallah's own interests led him to shuffle the deck in advance of a report by the international tribunal investigating Hariri's murder. The report is expected to incriminate either Hezbollah itself or some of its members. Thus Nasrallah's pretention of being Lebanon's "protector" has crumbled.

In these straits, he opted to prove how essential he is to preventing renewed civil war and thereby seek absolution. It is as if he were saying: Never mind about that murder; what is important now is preventing the massacre of thousands of Lebanese.

Nasrallah might well literally deflect the fire from himself toward Israel. Yet this is precisely the time when the wise should fall silent, follow events from the outside and maintain readiness, but keep the weapons' safety catches locked.

That is the challenge for Israel's government, and also, it seems, a final test of the moderating influence of outgoing IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi: to exercise restraint and not to be dragged into another entanglement in Lebanon.