Hamas and Hezbollah / Nasrallah Replaces Meshal

Hassan Nasrallah took great pains during the press conference he held yesterday to say that the goal of Hezbollah's attack was to carry out the decision he made at the beginning of the year to bring the Lebanese prisoners home.

"Had Israel released all the prisoners in an exchange then Hezbollah would not have been able to defend carrying out this operation," he said in response to a reporter's question. He also made sure to emphasize that his organization was acting on behalf of the Palestinians, lest the operation be interpreted as a broadening of Hezbollah's mandate (within the Lebanese national agreement) to limit its resistance activities to Lebanese targets within the country's borders.

Nasrallah repeated several times that the operation was planned a few months in advance - five, he said. In effect, he defined the abduction as a localized operation between his organization and Israel: If Israel wants the soldiers, then it must hold indirect negotiations and give Hezbollah what it wants.

On the face of it, there is nothing strategic going on here, nothing to change the geopolitical balance. But Nasrallah is not denying that the timing of the operation could greatly aid the Palestinians in obtaining the release of their prisoners. It can be assumed that the timing also determined the nature of the Israeli response in Gaza, since Hezbollah believes - and Nasrallah said as much yesterday - that it has the tools to achieve a balance of deterrence against a broader military action in Lebanon.

Whatever the original pretext for the attack and abduction, it has already set a new agenda for Nasrallah, the Lebanese government, Syria and other Arab states, which already initiated the mediation process aimed at achieving the soldiers' release. Hezbollah's operation also complicates matters for the Palestinian leadership - Hamas and Fatah alike.

The operation comes two days after Khaled Meshal set the conditions for the return of Gilad Shalit and implicitly accepted responsibility for the negotiations. Meshal had hoped this would not only create a unified Palestinian position vis-a-vis Israel but also emphasized that he was the policymaker.

Now it seems that Nasrallah will be handling the negotiations in the name of the Palestinians, de facto at least, since the Hezbollah action was immediately interpreted as carried out on behalf of the Palestinian prisoners with the goal of reducing Israel's pressure on Gaza.

This creates an interdependence between Hamas and Hezbollah: Neither will be able to neglect the release of the other's prisoners. It is unlikely that the Palestinian organization will decide that now is the time for them to sever the link with Hezbollah and agree to separate negotiations with Israel, even if Israel agrees to that.

Nasrallah has also put Syria and the Lebanese government in a tight spot, since the attack is seen as avenging the noisy flyover of the Israel Defense Forces over Damascus as well as ridiculing Beirut's inability to obtain the prisoners' release. Israel's declaration that the Lebanese government is responsible for the soldiers' welfare obligates Beirut to initiate negotiations with Hezbollah from a position of weakness.

The question now is how the Lebanese will respond to the Israeli operation and to what extent Nasrallah will be affected by public opinion. Nasrallah is counting on gaining support from both the Lebanese public and the government as Israeli military actions escalate. And if his gamble is wrong, the lack of a strong central government in Beirut means he is not risking much.