Hizbullah’s next target may be Lebanon

What should worry the Israeli government is that the recent border skirmish has actually made Hizbullah more popular inside Lebanon.

Hizbullah supporter 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Hizbullah supporter 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
I try not to get worked up about reports of imminent war in the Middle East. For years, I have looked suspiciously at estimates that Iran will get bombed in three months, six months or on Saturday afternoon after Ali Khamenei has finished his lunch. Why? Because the Middle East is always full of surprises. Just when we believe war to be imminent, nothing happens, and vice versa.
However, this time I really can’t shake the feeling that something ominous is in the air, involving Hizbullah. It will either be a massive confrontation with Israel, or armed conflict inside Lebanon.
After the recent attack by the Lebanese Army against the Israeli Defense Forces soldiers, who were fixing a tree on the border, many have predicted that it’s only a question of time before the outbreak of the next round of fighting between Israel and Hizbullah begins.
But there is another development that showed the seriousness of the impending conflict, and that is the warning given by Hizbullah that the deal brokered two years ago in Doha is about to collapse – a deal made after Hizbullah’s military attack against Sunni forces left 90 dead. In 2008, after an 18-month political crisis surrounding the group’s power in the country and fearing that another civil war could break out, Sunni, Christian and Shi’ite factions traveled to the Qatari capital to try and work out a deal in order to return calm to Lebanon.
They finally succeeded in reaching a compromise, which included veto power for Hizbullah in the Lebanese cabinet.
The recent warning was made soon after the Emir of Qatar Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani visited Lebanon. He was there soon after the Saudi king and the Syrian president made a joint visit to the country.
Mohammad Ra’ad, a Hizbullah member of the Lebanese parliament, while addressing a group of supporters, stated that the Lebanese government is facing a new threat, and that the Rafik Hariri murder trial has been politicized to serve Israel’s interests. In other words, any accusation against Hizbullah will be interpreted as an act of treason in Israel’s favor.
The question that must be asked then in this: If Hizbullah is interested in attacking Israel, why is it warning that the Doha agreement is about to collapse? Attacking Israel has nothing to do with that. Hizbullah could get involved in a military confrontation with Israel without warning about the Doha agreement. In fact, even if Israel were its only target, Hizbullah would do everything to strengthen the Doha deal so that it could reap the benefits of domestic support while waging war on Israel.
THERE IS, however, one other possibility: the Shi’ite organization could be about to launch a domestic power grab. This could be bloody, involving massive armed confrontation, or it could be bloodless; perhaps, for instance, involving some sort of agreement made with opposing factions. Hizbullah has the military capability to do this, as it’s the only militia in Lebanon. In fact, if it does turn out that it was behind the Hariri assassination, then it would be a clear sign to any Lebanese politician that Hizbullah is not an organization to be messed with.
Israel has every reason to view developments on its northern border with much concern. The recent attack by Lebanon’s army against the Israeli forces, perhaps with Hizbullah’s blessing, could have been a test. This would not be the first time that Hizbullah underwrote a small attack to test Israeli and international will prior to making a major move. Back in 2005, Hizbullah forces attempted to kidnap IDF soldiers near the village of Rajar, but failed and lost four gunmen. That failure did not deter it from trying again, this time in 2006, which led to the start of the second Lebanon war.
But what should worry the Israeli government is that the recent border skirmish has actually made Hizbullah more popular inside Lebanon. The good news for the Lebanese population is that this could encourage Hizbullah to focus on Israel, and prevent it from taking on domestic elements. Otherwise, the possibility that Hizbullah may go for a power grab still exists.
The bad news for Israel is that it is very ill equipped to defend itself diplomatically. Its tarnished image after falling out with the Obama administration, Turkey and the international community over the Gaza flotilla affair means that it will find an increasingly smaller audience that’s willing to listen to its concerns, as legitimate as they are. The good news for Hizbullah is that if Israel ends the settlement freeze, then Israel’s pool of friends in the international community is going to shrink even more, and fast.
The question then becomes: Is Hizbullah willing to wait until September 25, the date of the end of the current freeze, to find out?
The writer is an Iranian-Israeli Middle East analyst and a regular contributor to RealClearWorld, where this was originally published. He is co-author of The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the State of Iran.
This article originally appeared in www.realclearworld.com