Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah's threat to take reprisals against Israel revealed a new twist: the Shi'ite organization's intelligence network is faulty, and (if Nasrallah is to be believed) this weakness has been exploited by senior figures in Lebanon's government.
Ghaleb Awali's assassination on Monday in a car bomb attack in a southern Beirut neighborhood, where Hezbollah's presence is strong, was taken by the Shi'ite organization as an Israeli message about a new chapter in the conflict: In the aftermath of the assassination, Hezbollah believes it must improve its intelligence work, compartmentalize its activities more strictly, and even toughen up a policy of executing those within its ranks who are suspected of collaborating with the enemy, along the lines of how Hamas has treated suspected turncoats in Gaza.
Nasrallah's statement marks the first time the Hezbollah leader has publicly, directly accused Lebanese leaders of "collaboration" with Israel.
Hezbollah's response yesterday - firing at Israeli positions and killing two IDF soldiers in an area that is not typically the scene of confrontations - was designed to send Israel a message. The message: Hezbollah can kill Israelis, anytime, any place.
The intelligence war between Israel and Hezbollah has not really started this month. Last August, a car bomb attack killed Ali Hussein Salah, a Hezbollah man who served as a driver in Iran's embassy in Lebanon. Salah, it appears, was not the target of the strike - a senior Hezbollah figure was supposed to be in the car. A few months ago, Lebanese security forces reported that they detained a group of Palestinians suspected of carrying out intelligence work for Israel, with the aim of assassinating Nasrallah.
Despite these past events, Awali's killing sends a new message: Israel can get to Hezbollah anywhere in Lebanon, and its intelligence network enables it to keep tabs on the movements of top Hezbollah figures, wherever they go.
The intelligence war between Israel and Hezbollah rests on the assumption that the latter's actions are constrained by considerations of Lebanese public opinion, and by Syrian concerns about a possible escalation of violence on Lebanon's southern border. On this assumption, Hezbollah's ability to respond is limited - just as Israel's ability to initiate military action is limited. Under such circumstances, genuine strategic goals cannot be obtained; instead, the best that either side can hope for is to revise the status quo slightly in its own favor.
Israel wants to hedge Hezbollah's activity as a source of support for Palestinian terror groups; the Awali assassination should apparently be seen as part of the effort to promote this goal. Israel, it seems, might ratchet up its anti-terror efforts against Hezbollah - as Israeli spokesman emphasized after the assassination of Hamas leader Sheikh Yassin, Nasrallah himself is a possible target.
Yet the attempt to tilt the balance in the status quo with Hezbollah could in the end undermine Israel's working assumption. True, domestic politics in Lebanon work as a restraining factor on Hezbollah's activity. But this does not mean that prominent Israelis, or Jews around the world, might not end up as targets of Hezbollah strikes.