How Israel Can Use to Syria to Thwart Ahmadinejad

Lebanon, that little country that has no intrinsic strategic significance, is serving well as the region's boxing ring.

"How do you feel with Ahmadinejad so nearby?" a farmer from Moshav Avivim, on the Lebanese border, was asked, as if an actual Iranian nuclear bomb had been laid right next to the border. But it is not Ahmadinejad's proximity that should worry the farmer, or the dramaturges that accompanied the spectacle. Because this visit evinced no new threat, no declaration that had not been heard before, no new revolution threatening to destroy Lebanon.

Bint Jbail, like most of southern Lebanon, has been under Hezbollah control for years. Images of the ayatollahs Ruhollah Khomeini and Ali Khamenei have long been a ubiquitous part of the Lebanese landscape. Iranian aid to Hezbollah needs no new "proper disclosure" from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the Lebanese government - which is of no particular interest to the Iranian president - cannot refuse a visit from him, not after Lebanese President Michel Suleiman was given such a solicitous welcome in Tehran.

In the absence of genuine new threats they had to be invented, in the form of discerning "hidden messages" in the great show put on by Hezbollah for the Iranian president: one to Washington, so it knows who's in charge in Lebanon; a double message to Israel, so it understands that Iran is backing Hezbollah and Hezbollah will "protect" Iran if Israel attacks it; one warning the Lebanese against accusing Hezbollah of murderering Rafik Hariri; one message to the Sunnis and another to the Shi'ites. In short, Lebanon, that little country that has no intrinsic strategic significance, served well as the region's boxing ring. Fierce contests for control and hegemony are being fought in that arena - in particular, a cold war between certain Arab states on one side, and Iran and its allies on the other; between the so-called "pro-Western" and "anti-American" axes.

Lebanon is not the only fight venue in the neighborhood. Iraq, Palestine, Yemen and Sudan offer similar services to powerful rivals wrestling for regional control. Ahmadinejad has also taken aim at Arab states attempting to curb Iran's influence. In Egypt, for example, the official organ Ruz al-Yusuf called Ahmadinejad's visit: "The day on which Beirut became a Shi'ite emirate," while Saudi Arabia's foreign minister said cautionly, "we must first study all the results of this visit."

Even Syria, which Ahmadinejad visited in September, did not go overboard in responding to the Iranian president's reception in Lebanon. His statements were quoted selectively in the Syrian press, and on Thursday the main headlines were grabbed by the important news of the visit to Damascus by outgoing Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, after nearly a year of being shunned. Lebanon is still in Syria's sphere of influence, and Damascus has no intention of handing it over to Tehran. That is the "secret of success" of the Iran-Syria alliance - an understanding that they will respect the boundaries of each other's sphere of influence.

Israel could have had a major role in this mighty power play. The renewal of negotiations with Syria, precisely at the time of Ahmadinejad's visit, and after President Bashar Assad's statement that Iran was supportive of such talks, would have presented Iran with a serious dilemma regarding its relations with Syria while putting Hezbollah in the awkward situation of its protector-state negotiating with its worst enemy.

Such negotiations would not necessarily lead to the dissolution of the ties between Iran and Syria, since their shared common interests are not identical with each state's own interests vis-a-vis other countries. Nor would it necessarily lead to Hezbollah's disarmament. But a peace agreement between Israel and Syria would significantly lower the threat from the northern border and create a new strategic equation, one that could be more important than peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

But for such negotiations to begin Israel would have to declare that it understands the price of peace, or issue any other declaration that would convince Assad that he will not become a second Mahmoud Abbas. And this will not happen. Israel prefers to count the rockets in Hezbollah's armories and to quote Ahmadinejad's promises of the imminent end of the Zionist entity. Israel has always known how to seal the windows of opportunity with duct tape, lest they form a crack, God forbid.