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(photo credit: AP [file])
Justice Minister Haim Ramon suggested Thursday that Hizbullah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah was a target for assassination.
"Hizbullah is a target wherever it is located - in Lebanon, in Tripoli, in Beirut, in every place," Ramon told Army Radio. Asked whether Nasrallah was a target, Ramon said, "All those who plan the attacks, all those who allow such terror activities, are also a target."
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said Thursday that Israel's military operation in Lebanon was designed to move Hizbullah away from the northern border and force the Lebanese government to deploy its troops to take control of South Lebanon.
"We have a goal," Livni said. "The goal is to move Hizbullah out of southern Lebanon." Livni, speaking to Channel 2 soon after a rocket hit Haifa, said that during a cabinet meeting Wednesday where the IDF operations in Lebanon were approved, the ministers took into consideration that Hizbullah would make good on threats to hit Israel cities in the North.
A communique issued after that meeting said, "The new reality in which Israel is operating requires special readiness, especially in light of the possibility that the enemy will seek to attack the home front."
"We had no other choice," Livni said of the army's operations. "For a number of years, Israel waited, as Hizbullah was arming itself, for the Lebanese government to move it out of southern Lebanon."
Livni said Hizbullah was not only an issue on the Lebanese border. "Hizbullah is a proxy of Iran and Syria with an open front with Israel, and Nasrallah wants to become a regional leader and block any possibility for an agreement. He is a regional provocateur; it was impossible to continue with it anymore. We had to respond, and that is what we are doing today."
She said that the operation was not intended to avenge Wednesday's attacks, in which two soldiers were captured and eight were killed, but had larger strategic goals. "There will be a point of time where the Lebanese government will need to decide that Hizbullah does not promote Lebanon, is a burden on the Lebanese people and the Lebanese government, and that they will need to send the army south to areas that are now empty."
Livni said that as a result of the IDF's actions, the Lebanese government can no longer claim it doesn't have the ability to dislodge Hizbullah from the south, since to a large degree the IDF has already done that.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, meanwhile, held consultations throughout the day with members of the security establishment at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv. He also met with senior US Deputy National Security Adviser Elliott Abrams and Assistant Secretary of State David Welch.
Abrams and Welch arrived Thursday for two days of talks. In addition to meeting Olmert, they met with Livni and Defense Minister Amir Peretz. On Friday they are expected to go to Ramallah and meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Diplomatic officials said one topic of conversation during the pair's meetings with Israeli leaders was Iran's role in the current crisis, and how it should be dealt with.
A senior official in the Prime Minister's Office said that Thursday's military action was also aimed at encouraging international pressure, especially Arab pressure, on the Lebanese government to rein in Hizbullah. According to this reasoning, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf States do not - out of their own interests - want to see the situation escalate into a full-scale war, and may now put pressure on the central government in Beirut to clamp down on Hizbullah.
The same, the official said, may also be true of the broader international community, which has never forced Lebanon to disarm Hizbullah, as called for under UN Security Council Resolution 1559, but may do so if they sense the region is on the verge of a major explosion.
The other side of this coin, however, is the concern among some in Jerusalem that the international community will step forcefully onto the stage within the next 48 hours and demand that Israel stop its military operations. One senior official said that this is to a large degree what Nasrallah is banking on - that the international community would step in before his organization is dealt too heavy a blow.
The United Nations Security Council was due to convene on Friday to discuss the escalating violence. The US said it had vetoed a draft Security Council resolution condemning Israel's Gaza offensive.
Israel, meanwhile, stepped up a public diplomacy offensive Thursday, with senior IDF and Foreign Ministry officials explaining the goals of the IDF operations to the foreign press.
IDF General Staff member Brig.-Gen. Ido Nehushtan said, "The situation where a sovereign country harbors a terrorist country and lets it act against another sovereign country cannot be tolerated. We have to defend our people."
He said the IAF was targeting infrastructure in Lebanon, not to get the Lebanese to place pressure on the government, but rather because the infrastructure - from the Beirut airport to the roads heading south - were used to transport missiles and other weaponry used against Israel.
Israeli officials have also said that strikes against roads and bridges were meant to make it more difficult to move the two abducted soldiers out of southern Lebanon. Gideon Meir, the Foreign Ministry's deputy director-general for public affairs, said Thursday that Israel had "specific information that Hizbullah is planning to transfer the kidnapped soldiers to Iran."
AP contributed to this report.