Israel is stepping up preparations for the visit of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Lebanon next week, during which he is scheduled to visit the country's border area with Israel.
Through United Nations, U.S. and French mediators, Israel has urged the Lebanese government to prevent Ahmadinejad from visiting the border and engaging in what Jerusalem described as "provocation."
The Iranian leader will visit Lebanon next Wednesday and Thursday, and is slated to visit the southern Lebanese villages of Bint Jbeil and Maroun al-Ras, each within a few kilometers of Israeli soil. The London-based newspaper Al-Quds Al-Arabi has reported that Ahmadinejad is interested in reaching the border fence to hurl stones at Israeli soldiers on the other side.
A top-ranking Israeli official said the Foreign Ministry and security services are conducting security evaluations of Ahmadinejad's visit, and that Israel is engaged in military, diplomatic and public-relations preparations in the days preceding it.
Over the past week, Israel has sent messages to Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri and President Michel Suleiman through UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the U.S. and French governments. Last week, National Security Council head Uzi Arad met in Paris with his French counterpart Jean-David Levitte and asked him to transfer messages to the Lebanese government stating that Jerusalem views Ahmadinejad's visit close to Israel's border as a provocative measure that could undermine regional stability and should therefore be canceled. A similar message was delivered to U.S. officials.
Last week Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman raised the issue in his meeting with Ban at UN Headquarters in New York. Lieberman said his government is "extremely worried" about the Iranian president's visit.
Sources in Jerusalem added that even before Israel asked Lebanon to reconsider Ahmadinejad's stop in the country's south, senior U.S. and French officials had already done the same independently. American officials reportedly did so immediately following the Iranian president's speech at the UN General Assembly last month blaming the U.S. government for the September 11 attacks.
"They told the Lebanese that it wouldn't be wise to facilitate Ahmadinejad's visit to the border," a high-ranking Israeli official said on condition of anonymity due to subject's sensitive nature.
The Lebanese government has yet to respond affirmatively to the requests. The country's media, however, reported recently that while Suleiman does not oppose Ahmadinejad's arrival per se, he is examining whether the visit will conform with diplomatic protocol, undermine Lebanon's security or influence the country's relations with "other countries" - presumably Israel.
Recent months have seen heightened tensions along the Israel-Lebanon border. In early August, a battalion commander in the IDF reserves, Dov Harari, was killed by an unidentified sniper near Kibbutz Manara.
Defense officials say Hezbollah believes it has an "open account" with Israel over the 2008 assassination of Imad Mughniyeh, one of its top commanders, a strike the militant group attributes to Israel. Hezbollah, they said, is planning a series of terrorist attacks in revenge for Mughniyeh's death.
Meanwhile, Syrian President Bashar Assad arrived in Tehran yesterday for a one-day visit. Iranian news agencies reported that Assad was welcomed by Ahmadinejad in an official state ceremony, and met later with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Ahmadinejad presented Assad with an award for Syria's support of Hamas and Hezbollah, and Syrian media reported that the two leaders issued a joint statement indicating that Israel's actions - "Judaizing" Jerusalem, settlement building and the blockade on Gaza - prove it is not interested in peace.
The statement also expressed the leaders' goal of expanding regional "resistance" to Israel. "The strengthening of the resistance movement will encourage other countries to join this bloc, which would eventually lead toward stabilizing regional peace," it said.
Assad said the current attempts to revive Israeli-Palestinian dialogue have yielded no results, and represent little more than an attempt by U.S. President Barack Obama to accumulate political capital.
Both Assad and Ahmadinejad said expansion of ties between Iran and Syria will benefit the region politically as well as economically. "The U.S. and the Zionist regime have been disgraced in the region and that will eventually serve the real interests of regional people," Ahmadinejad said.