WITH HIZBULLAH threatening to install an Iranian-controlled puppet government in Lebanon, Israel is closely monitoring developments, although officials say they don’t expect an escalation of tensions on the northern border.The ultimate strategic worry is over the spread of Iranian influence and the creation of a “Shi’a Crescent” under Tehran’s sway from Iran, through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, which could threaten Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made no secret of his concern over a Hizbullah political or military takeover of Lebanon, which would be part of this strategic nightmare. “Obviously we are following events in Lebanon very closely. We have in the past publicly expressed our concern about Lebanon turning into an Iranian satellite through its proxy Hizbullah taking over the country. But we have no desire whatsoever to see an escalation on the border. We want the northern border to remain quiet and we will not give anyone on the other side an excuse to heighten border tensions,” a senior Israeli official tells The Report.As part of the effort not to exacerbate tensions, the IDF has been careful not to move troops to the northern border. The intelligence estimate presented to both Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak is that Hizbullah does not want a border confrontation at this point and the IDF does not want to do anything that might change that.The current crisis in Lebanon erupted on January 12, when the government led by Saad Hariri collapsed after the withdrawal of 11 Shi’a ministers. The pullout, triggered by Hizbullah, was in protest at Hariri’s refusal to repudiate the findings of the UN-backed Special Tribunal on Lebanon (STL), which is expected to blame Hizbullah for the assassination of Hariri’s father, former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in February 2005.In the wake of the murder, two opposing political movements took shape: the March 14 alliance of Sunnis and most Christian factions, led by Saad Hariri, and the March 8 alliance of Shi’ites and some pro- Syrian Christian factions, such as Michel Ayoun’s Free Patriotic Movement and Carlos Edde’s Lebanese National Bloc, led by Hizbullah. Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, initially part of March 14, defected in August 2009 and currently holds the balance of power. Of the 128 members of the Lebanese parliament, 60 are loyal to Hariri and 57 to Hizbullah, with Jumblatt’s 11 Druze in a position to decide the outcome of the political power struggle between them.Jumblatt initially said he would back Hariri to form a new government, but a few days later, under severe pressure from Hizbullah, including threats on his life, he announced that he would support whomever Hizbullah put forward as its candidate. At the time of writing, it was not clear whether he would be able to carry all 11 members of his camp.If things don’t go their way, the threat of a Hizbullah military takeover of Lebanon is still in the air. By far the most powerful military force in Lebanon, Hizbullah recently conducted an exercise in which its forces gain control of Beirut in an hour as part of a wider contingency plan to take over the country as a whole in a few days. The Israeli view is that this is unlikely to happen, at least not this time round. Lebanon watchers maintain that if it were to take on the Lebanese army in a civil war, Hizbullah would lose its legitimacy as “the defender of Lebanon.” Moreover, it would not want to be blamed for starting an armed conflict that would inevitably undermine Lebanon’s current economic prosperity, reflected in last year’s huge 7 percent growth rate. Finally, the experts say, Hizbullah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah is seeking absolution for the Hariri murder by posing as the man preventing civil war in Lebanon.Nevertheless, Israel continues to monitor Hizbullah’s military build-up and to prepare for an eventual showdown. In the Israeli estimate, Hizbullah already has around 45,000 rockets and longer range missiles, more than four times the arsenal it had in the Second Lebanon War in 2006. Israel also claims that Hizbullah has built hundreds of outposts and bunkers south of the Litani River, in blatant violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which brought the hostilities in 2006 to an end. When in a recent tripartite meeting of IDF officers, Lebanese army personnel and UN peacekeepers, the Lebanese denied claims that Hizbullah had been allowed to move south, the Israeli officers produced detailed maps showing the precise location of the Hizbullah positions. But neither the UN nor the Lebanese army has since done anything to challenge the resolution-violating Hizbullah deployment.Israel has also been coordinating closely on events in Lebanon with the US. In late January, Israeli officials discussed the situation with Dennis Ross, a special presidential adviser with overall responsibility for the Central Region, which includes Iran, and Fred Hoff, the state department’s expert on Syria and Lebanon.The big question, however, remains unanswered: Is there a red line which, if crossed by Hizbullah, would cause Israel to feel it needed to intervene in Lebanon? On that, Israeli officials are understandably silent.