Herzog: We are moderates, facing an 'extreme lunatic coalition'

Tourism Minister Isaac Herzog accused Iran on Thursday of sparking the violence in northern Israel to deflect attention from its nuclear program. "It could be that the Iranians are using Hizbullah as a puppet," said Herzog, who is a security cabinet member. "I believe there is a whole web here that wanted to derail the area in order to shift the attention of the world from the Iranian nuclear program," Herzog told reporters in Haifa. To prove his point, he spoke of the movements of Ali Larijani, Iran's chief nuclear negotiator. On the day Hizbullah kidnapped two soldiers along the Lebanese border last week, Larijani finished negotiations in Europe on the Iranian nuclear program. "Rather than flying to Teheran he landed in Damascus," said Herzog. "We are part of moderate coalition of nations in the region, which will confront this extreme lunatic coalition, this axis of evil that ranges from Teheran to Damascus to the Hizbullah. We are focused on dismantling the capability of this organization," said Herzog. He also spoke in defense of Israel's military operation in Lebanon and of its determination not to negotiate for the release of the kidnapped soldiers. In the past, he said, Israel had taken steps that its enemies mistook for weakness, such as negotiating for hostages, pulling out of Lebanon in 2000 and withdrawing from Gaza in 2005. All of these were correct steps but Israel can not afford to allow Hizbullah and Hamas to be guided by this misconception, he said. "What Israel meant as something reasonable was interpreted as a sign of weakness," said Herzog. If Hamas had not kidnapped a soldier along the Gaza border last month and if Hizbullah had not taken two soldiers captive, the situation would be different, he added. Without those incidents it's probable that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert would have met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and it's likely that Israel would have agreed to release prisoners as a gesture to bolster moderate forces within the PA, he added. To release prisoners now, as part of a hostage exchange, would be to reward extremism and "that is something we will not permit, he said. "It would show that Israel gives in to blackmail and extortion and, worst of all, it would lead to more kidnappings in the future," he added. "We are determined to change the rules of the game," he said.