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The assassination of Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Mahbouh in Dubai, allegedly perpetrated by Israel, was another expression of the all-out cold war between Israel and Iran. The two regional powers are fighting for clout and influence in the Middle East, threatening mutual destruction and harassing each another with clandestine action.

The hostility has been going on for years, but this month there has been more talk of an actual war breaking out, during the "crucial year" of 2010. The American administration is now trying to avoid an explosion; that is President Barack Obama's main challenge in the region.

The current Israeli-Iranian hostilities are reminiscent of the U.S.-Soviet Cold War, and Israel's war for influence against Gamal Abdel Nasser's Egypt in the 1950s and '60s, and against Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization in the '70s and the '80s. They have similar characteristics: profound ideological rejection of the foe, threats against its existence, an arms race, clandestine global activity, supplying arms to allies, diplomatic alliances with regional and global powers, an economic boycott and diplomatic isolation.

Every few days, the Iranian news agency IRNA posts to its Web site a promise by an Iranian leader that the Zionist regime is on the verge of collapse. Or a soothing message that Israel is weak and incapable of attacking Iran, or that if it does attack, it will be punished. Or encouragement for anti-Zionist rabbis in Europe and calls to try "Israeli war criminals" over their deeds in Gaza. Even Prof. Ilan Pappe, "the Israeli dissident," is mentioned favorably.

The Iranian message: Zionism is a criminal ideology responsible for shocking war crimes. The Zionist regime is not legitimate, and will inevitably collapse if faced with determined "resistance."

Furthermore, according to the Iranians, Saudi Arabia is attacking Yemen as part of an American and Israeli plot. This sounds ridiculous until we recall the story the Israeli Air Force journal published two years ago about the secret military aid Israel gave the pro-Saudi royalists in their war against Nasser. History is repeating itself.

Just as the Iranians are saying they are not against Jews, but only Zionism, the Israeli leaders are explaining they love and respect the Iranian people but oppose only the regime. They blame Iran for all the security troubles facing Israel, from suicide attacks to rockets and Qassams, but add that if the ayatollahs were to be cast out, we could love again, as in the days of the shah.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calls Iran "the new Amalek" because of its attempts to obtain nuclear weapons. The Book of Deuteronomy (25:19?) exhorts: "Thou shalt blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven."

Airport "doctrine"

This week the public threats peaked. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad warned that Israel is planning to launch a war "in the spring or the summer" and said that if this happens, "The resistance and the states in the region will wipe out this false regime."

Last week Ahmadinejad announced that his country could build an atomic bomb. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah marked out targets - Tel Aviv and Ben-Gurion International Airport, which would be bombed if Israel were to attack Beirut and Hariri Airport. In the face of Israel's "Dahiya doctrine" (i.e., destruction of Lebanese infrastructure if Israel comes under rocket fire again), Hezbollah is proposing the "Ben-Gurion International doctrine."

Nasrallah, like his Iranian friend, spoke about self-defense in the face of Israeli action, and not about initiating an attack. Here, too, it is hard to ignore the symmetry in the threats. Ahmadinejad and Nasrallah's remarks resemble Israel's warnings against a Syrian "miscalculation" three years ago. In the end, Syria did nothing and Israel bombed the nuclear installation near the Euphrates River.

Are Iran and Hezbollah plotting to attack under the cover of warnings against Israeli aggression? Nasrallah's explanation sounds like an exact copy of Lieberman's statements that Syria's ruling Assad family will fall from power if it takes on Israel. Nasrallah and Lieberman believe boastful threats are the most effective deterrence.

Meanwhile, the public is staying calm on both sides. Here, too, Tel Aviv and Beirut are mirror images of each other. Both cities have been threatened with destruction in the next war. Both have seen an insane increase in real estate prices - both gained 37 percent over the past year, according to TheMarker and the Global Property Guide Web site. The skylines of both coastal cities are changing rapidly as luxury apartment towers multiply - the first buildings likely to collapse under bombardments and missile attacks.

Conclusion: The Israelis and the Lebanese do not believe the threats. Were they really afraid of "a second Holocaust" and the destruction of their cities, they would no doubt be seeking refuge overseas and not wasting millions of dollars on luxury apartments that would be destroyed.Yet, it would be a mistake to dismiss the reciprocal threats as empty words intended for "domestic consumption." This is also how Israel explained Nasser's threats until the entire region was swept into the Six-Day War. Then, too, each side claimed its enemy wanted to attack it. Cumulative escalation could explode if it is not identified and defused - and that is what the top American officials are trying to do, as they set out for the Middle East to calm tempers.

The old cliche "the Arabs have the oil and we have the match" has been proven again: The American administration has not invested nearly as much effort in aiding the suffering Palestinians as it has now put into preventing a regional eruption that would send energy prices sky high. Israel's threats against "Amalek" and its Syrian, Lebanese and Palestinian partners disturb the Americans far more than the expansion of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Jewish housing in East Jerusalem.

Next month U.S. Vice President Joe Biden will visit Jerusalem. He is expected to warn Israel against a preventative attack on Iran's nuclear installation, as U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Michael Mullen did this week. The public warning gives the Americans diplomatic cover: They have told the Israelis not to act. But attacking Natanz, like Israel attacked the reactors in Iraq and Syria, is just one possible scenario. And what if the Lebanese front ignites, Iran backs Hezbollah and Israel retaliates in the name of self-defense? Or if, vice versa, Israel takes action in the north and Iran bombs it?

Netanyahu will meet with Obama twice in the next few weeks, when he visits Washington for the conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee lobby and during the international nuclear conference. The Iranian threat will star at both events, the prime minister will have plenty to say, and the president will have plenty to hear.