Removing the Mask

Hezbollah had been trying to paint itself as more moderate and more Lebanese. The hero's welcome it gave Iran's president this week showed once and for all how false that image is

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's visit to Beirut this week was accompanied by insane accusations ("The Israelis are responsible for the climate crisis" ), infantile claims ("We have no homosexuals in Iran" ) and threats to annihilate Israel. His enthusiastic welcome by the Lebanese Shiites, his tight bear hug for the country's Sunni and Christian leadership, and the intense concern the visit aroused within all the other camps in the country created a strange, pathetic spectacle.

Ahmadinejad AP

Can anyone seriously complain about Israel's reconnaissance flights over Lebanon and its demand for tougher sanctions against Iran, when the enemy's intentions are so flagrant? If Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman had not spoiled the picture by quarreling with his Spanish and French colleagues, and if it were not for the peculiar deal that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered the Palestinians (recognize Israel as a Jewish state and get two months of construction freeze for free ), this would have been an excellent diplomatic week for Israel.

But that's only half the story. The other half is in Lebanon: a hostage state, which on Wednesday saluted the person whom the Hezbollah announcer at the ceremony called the "supreme commander." It was quite a frightening demonstration of force by the Iranians. If Gaza (whose population is Sunni ) is now ruled by a fanatic regime that draws its inspiration from Iran, why not try to repeat the exercise in Shiite Lebanon, too?

Not Lebanese interests

In 1992, Hassan Nasrallah took over as secretary general of Hezbollah after Israel assassinated his predecessor, Abbas Musawi. Shortly afterward, Nasrallah, his partners in leadership and their Iranian patrons decided that the organization would run in Lebanon's parliamentary elections that August. The final authorization came in a religious ruling by Iranian spiritual leader Ali Khamenei. Since then Hezbollah has taken part in all the election campaigns in Lebanon and has had ministers in two governments.

Back in 1992, Hezbollah portrayed itself as a Lebanese organization that looked after all the country's citizens. In 1997, Hezbollah even changed the inscription that appears at the bottom of its yellow banner from "The Islamic Revolution in Lebanon" to "The Islamic Resistance in Lebanon."

Western and Arab researchers subsequently argued that the organization was becoming more moderate and more Lebanese, and chose to ignore Hezbollah's close ties with Iran, its economic and military dependence on Tehran, its preference for Shiite religious arbiters from Iran over their Lebanese counterparts and the continued presence of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in Lebanon. It was, finally, the Second Lebanon War that proved that Hezbollah is not motivated by the interests of most Lebanese.

Ahmadinejad is not the first Iranian president to visit Lebanon. In 2003, his predecessor, Mohammad Khatami, visited Beirut and its surroundings. The contrast between the two visits could not be more striking. Ahmadinejad was welcomed on Wednesday by tens of thousands of Shiites lining the streets to his hotel. Hundreds of huge posters bearing his image were hung across the country. Hezbollah's media outlets discarded the Lebanese mask and displayed its Iranian face for all to see.

The visit was taken as a provocation toward the pro-Western March 14 camp, against the background of the furor over an international tribunal's investigation into the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the former prime minister and father of the current prime minister, Saad Hariri. Ahmadinejad offered the Lebanese army an extensive aid package, which if implemented, would deepen Iran's control of the country. That move, however, is unlikely to succeed. Lebanese President Michel Suleiman is wary of the Iranians and is trying to bridge Lebanon's two rival camps, in the hope of averting a new civil war.

Two researchers from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Ash Jain and Andrew Tabler, this week conjured possible scenarios for Lebanon in the light of the Hariri investigation. One of the possibilities they presented was a military takeover of Beirut by Hezbollah, in an attempt to force the prime minister to stop cooperating with the international tribunal and to stop financing its work (Lebanon is paying 49 percent of the cost of the investigation ). Another scenario involves Hezbollah supporters staging street demonstrations to pressure the Lebanese government, which could lead to armed clashes.

The two list other possibilities as well: the resignation of the March 8 faction (Hezbollah, Amal and their Christian partner, Michel Aoun ) in order to paralyze government activity; Hariri's resignation, which would boost his credit with the Sunni and Christian public but probably would not help extract Lebanon from its political turmoil, or would lead to the formation of a new government; or Hariri's accession to Hezbollah's demands.

Last week, a few leaders of the anti-Hezbollah camp met in Beirut. Participants described their mood as particularly gloomy. It is clear to the prime minister and his backers that Hezbollah is unlikely to sit by quietly if the investigation openly accuses it of assassinating his father. Saad Hariri, who wants to find out the truth about his father's murder, knows the struggle could end Lebanon's already dubious integrity - and his life. Only a month ago, four people were killed in a clash between Hezbollah activists and members of a Sunni organization in a Beirut suburb. In the present circumstances, another incident like this could hurl the country into civil war.

In the meantime, Hariri has become entangled in empty political battles with Hezbollah over the funding for the investigation, and with parliament speaker Nabih Berri, from Amal, a Shiite organization, who threatened to pull his ministers out of the government unless it discusses Lebanese justice minister Ibrahim Najjar's question as to whether the international tribunal is reliant on false testimonies. The fact that Najjar did not reach an unequivocal conclusion infuriated Hezbollah and its allies, which want the investigation to be transferred to the country's Supreme Court.

On Monday Hariri visited Cairo. President Hosni Mubarak's spokesman stated during the visit that Egypt supports the tribunal and that "the attempt by local elements to delay [its] work, against the will of some of the Lebanese, will not succeed."

Unusual moderation

Uncharacteristically, the Israeli leadership pursued a policy of calm in the face of the provocation (at least as of midday Thursday ). True, Defense Minister Ehud Barak was photographed reviewing an exercise by a tank company on the Golan Heights. But he made do with a relatively soft statement, to the effect that Lebanon had gradually ceased to be a normal state and was becoming "a tool in the hands of other elements."

Some senior figures, including GOC Northern Command Gadi Eizenkot, view Iranian aid to organizations such as Hezbollah and Hamas as a more immediate and significant threat than the nuclear project. Speaking last week at a gathering to mark the centenary of the kibbutz movement, Military Intelligence director Amos Yadlin described the "extremist regime in Iran" as Israel's "top threat." "The fusion of radical ideology, calling for Israel's annihilation, and nuclear weapons is a dangerous threat that 6 million Jews who ingathered and returned to the land of their fathers are obliged to take seriously," he said.

Iran, Yadlin added, is "an unceasing source of extremist ideology, funds for terror, weapons and combat doctrines, which are disseminated to all of Israel's enemies in the Middle East." Yadlin described Iran as "the most problematic element that is hampering processes of arrangements and moderation between us and our neighbors."

For the first time, Yadlin disclosed how much money Iran gives radical elements in the region: $1 billion a year to Hezbollah, $100 million to Hamas and $50 million to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. This money, he noted, is aimed at preventing any progress in the peace process.

Even though it is now the salient interest of both Israel and Hezbollah to avoid war, enough reasons exist to hurtle the region into renewed large-scale violence. Hezbollah has staged more than 10 attempts to perpetrate retaliatory attacks against Israeli and Jewish targets since the February 2008 assassination of Imad Mughniyeh in Damascus. Hezbollah's continued failure in this regard could give rise to the question of whether the organization is not hesitating due to Israel's threat to respond to an attack such as the bombing of an Israeli embassy (as Hezbollah and Iran did in Argentina in 1992 ) by launching a painful strike on Beirut's Dahiya quarter.

A few months ago, the Kuwaiti press, which in the past year has become a quick and quite reliable source about developments in Lebanon, reported that Hezbollah had acquired precision Scud D and M600 rockets. Concurrently, reports appeared about Hezbollah fighters training on the Syrian border in the use of these weapons. On February 24, the Lebanese media reported that 40 Israeli planes were seen one night in the skies over central Lebanon, in what appeared to be an attempt to disrupt the entry of convoys bringing in arms from Syria.

Until not long ago, the Israeli air force enjoyed almost total freedom to maneuver over Lebanon, without a genuine threat to its planes, despite the repeated protests by Hezbollah and the Lebanese government. But the past two years have seen a quantum leap in Syria's antiaircraft capabilities, which can be attributed to new missile systems as well as dozens of radar units that create a panoramic aerial picture of the region. This is equipment that could find its way into the hands of Hezbollah. Israel conveys periodic warnings to Syria, publicly and secretly, about allowing Hezbollah to acquire similar capabilities.