UN peacekeepers in southern Lebanon
UN peacekeepers patrolling a street in southern Lebanon. Photo by Reuters
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The shooting incident on Tuesday between the Israel Defense Forces and the Lebanese Army was exactly the sort of event included in the category of "a misunderstanding" that is liable to cause a war. Fortunately, as it were, the state of politics in Lebanon is so fragile now that each of the sides is trying to balance the power of the others, and thus prevent the regime from breaking up. Everyone is also trying to stop unnecessary shooting that could indeed spark an uncontrolled war.

This time, however, the domestic struggle to balance the forces within Lebanon engendered a grave mistake. Its army reacted to an IDF effort to prune trees along the border with gunfire that killed one IDF officer and wounded another, precipitating an Israeli response that resulted in the deaths of two Lebanese soldiers and a journalist. The Lebanese Army has thus "taken responsibility" and initiated what it is calling the implementation of Lebanon's sovereignty over its territory - in part in response to Hezbollah's accusations that the army is not acting to defend the country.

Indeed, in the wake of the shooting, the army garnered a great deal of praise from Hezbollah. The organization described the soldiers' actions as "proof of the nationalism of the army ... which has understood that this enemy understands only force and has also revealed the marionette in the Israeli theater of blood, called UNIFIL" - referring to the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon.

The Lebanese government is backing its army even if this action was not coordinated with it in advance. Not only is the leadership once again in a situation in which it has to react to what it sees as a violation by Israel of UN Security Council Resolution 1701 - but also, and perhaps mainly, it has to make it clear to Hezbollah that the organization responsible for the state's security is indeed the Lebanese Army and that southern Lebanon is not Hezbollah's exclusive domain.

This friction comes at an especially sensitive time: Elements in Hezbollah are liable to be blamed by the International Court of Justice for the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri. This is a matter in which Syria, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and the United States are involved, and it could have repercussions for Israel as well.

Hassan Nasrallah got in ahead of all of them. In a series of speeches and statements he has made it clear he does not intend to accept language of the international court that lays the blame on his organization. From his words, it can be clearly understood that if the organization or any of its people are accused of Hariri's assassination in 2005, he will see to it that the Lebanese government will not be able to function. Nasrallah has also hastened to demand of the Al-Mustaqbal bloc, headed by Saad Hariri, who is the prime minister and the son of the assassinated man, that it apologize to Syria for having blamed it over the years for the killing.

Fear of degeneration

Fear of a possible degeneration of the situation in Lebanon sent Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah to Syria and from there to Lebanon, this week. Abdullah met with Bashar Assad in Damascus for a long conversation that lasted until after midnight. In its wake, he sent his son Abdul Aziz to Hariri - to report to him on the "agreements" achieved with Syria. Assad's public statements, according to which Syria will stand by Hezbollah and the investigation should be closed "for the sake of Lebanon's stability," testify to the spirit of what was said.

Abdullah's joint visit with Assad to Beirut, and his historic visit to Lebanon in general, indicate a new commonality of interests, in which Saudi Arabia will try to influence the way the indictment is formulated and perhaps even attempt to prevent the ICJ from moving ahead with the case.

The partnership began back in October of 2009, when Abdullah visited Syria, after about five years of mutual alienation. Its background is far broader than just concern for Lebanon's stability. Saudi Arabia is donating large sums of money to Pakistan and Afghanistan, competing in this with Iran. It is trying to create a united front with the Gulf States against Iran; it actively shares Egypt's view of Iran as a danger to the old order in the Middle East; and it is trying to persuade Egypt to renew the relationship with Assad for the sake of this interest.

Saudi Arabia and Egypt are also concerned about Turkey's role. Suddenly Turkey is perceived as a partner of Iran and Syria, even though Turkey's interest is principally the way Iraq will be run after the United States withdraws.

When a spokesman of the U.S. State Department suggested to Assad that he "listen well to what King Abdullah says," he aroused tremendous ire in the king's court. The remark was understood as implying that Saudi Arabia is the United States' messenger, or at the very least that the U.S. was trying to embarrass Syria by means of the visit, as was expressed by the editor of the Saudi newspaper Asharq Al Awsat, Tariq Alhomayed.

However, not only the United States tried to "hitch a ride" on the visit. Iran's ambassador to Lebanon declared that the Saudi visit to Syria "testifies to a rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia," and in this way tried to dull the suspicion at home of Syrian "slippage" back into the Arab bosom, from which it has been alienated since Hariri's assassination.

In 2007 Saad Hariri declared: "We have stated more than once that Hezbollah is not involved in the crime in which prime minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated. We stress our position yet again, not in order to attest to anyone's integrity, but rather in order to illuminate the truth as we understand it." At that time he was not yet prime minister and he did not know what he knows today.

A few weeks ago, in a secret meeting between Hariri and Hassan Nasrallah, the prime minister told Nasrallah of the possibility that the international court's investigation of Rafik Hariri's assassination would end up pointing a finger at Hezbollah activists. However, Hariri hastened to assert that his father's blood "is less important than the unity of Lebanon" and that he would "not allow the investigating committee to harm Lebanon."

Hariri, who from the outset did not seek to be prime minister and preferred to head the political bloc without having more significant responsibility, found himself trapped in the thicket of Arab pressure. On the one hand, he did not want to give into the pressure from Hezbollah, which demanded the right to veto cardinal government decisions. When Hezbollah did not get its way in the past, it stopped the work of the government for many months during the course of 2008 and prevented the election of a new president. On the other hand, Hariri understood he had to reach a compromise that would enable his bloc to realize its political strength.

The upshot was a clumsy compromise, created with Qatar's mediation (and munificent funding ) in 2008. In its wake - and following a change in the elections law in June of 2009, which led to another political dispute lasting about five months and requiring additional mediation by Qatar and Saudi Arabia - Hariri succeeded in cobbling together a coalition. He himself simply dropped his anti-Syrian posture and became an honored member of the household in Assad's palace.

This status does not make Nasrallah happy. He fears the new alliance between Assad and Hariri will sooner or later come to be at his expense.

Now it appears no one wants the investigation or trial of the suspects any more, especially as paradoxically, the main beneficiary is liable to be Hezbollah, whose people apparently committed the murder. If Israel decides to attack Lebanon, in a flash, it could, intentionally or unintentionally, precipitate a total breakdown during which Hezbollah can be expected to rake in political gains.

At the same time, in a situation in which Syria and Saudi Arabia are in step with each other and Iran is just waiting for another rift between those two countries, Israel could contribute quite a lot if, for example, it were to announce its intention of withdrawing from the Golan Heights and of moving ahead on forging a peace agreement with Syria.