A Deadly Game in Lebanon

If today's attack by Lebanese forces on Israeli troops does lead to a full-scale war, then Lt. Col. Dov Harari, the 45-year old IDF reservist who will be laid to rest tomorrow at the military cemetery in the coastal town of Netanya, will have been its first victim.

Yes, I do believe it's that clear cut. Many of the initial accusations that Israel was at fault centered on a photograph showing IDF personnel using a crane to cut a tree on what appeared to be the Lebanese side of the fence which straddles the border between the two countries. However, as Andrea Tenenti, the spokesman for the peacekeeping force UNIFIL, told Michael Weiss of media watchdog Just Journalism, the fence and the border, known as the "Blue Line," don't always correspond. "It's a particular area where sometimes the Blue Line and the technical fence meet, and sometimes where there are meters in between," Tenenti said.

In a letter circulated to the UN Security Council this afternoon, Israel's representative reported that the IDF personnel had been carrying out routine maintenance work with the advance knowledge of UNIFIL officers who were present. The work, which involved chopping down shrubbery pushing in on the border fence, took place around 80 meters south of the Blue Line. An aerial photograph subsequently released by the IDF will confirm for all but the most conspiratorially-minded that the attack which claimed Harari's life took place on Israeli territory shortly after midday.

Arab leaders, including Lebanese President Michel Suleiman, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah, have used the day's events to reach new heights of bombast. Suleiman's accusations, in particular, approached hilarity. After all, if Suleiman is so concerned about the provisions of UN Security Council Resolution 1701, passed in the wake of the Lebanon war in 2006, why has he not lifted a finger to implement one of its key demands, namely, the disarming of Hezbollah, whose representatives sit in his cabinet? Surely not because of his professed admiration for Hezbollah's heroism?

Moreover, if Israel is bent on what the Syrian dictator Assad insists is "criminal aggression," it is certainly strange that, as the Associated Press observed, "there was no sign of any extensive Israeli preparations for a large-scale operation."

Given their long history of stirring up conflict with Israel, Arab leaders like Assad will never admit the awkward truth that Israel doesn't actually want a renewed war on its northern border, especially as the last one cost around $1.6 billion, resulted in the destruction of thousands of homes and businesses and caused the displacement of more than one million people. In fact, there are pertinent reasons to suggest that war is precisely what Assad wants, and that the commitment to Lebanese "stability" he articulated at the Beirut Summit with Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah was rather disingenuous window dressing.

A new report issued by the International Crisis Group -- hardly known for its partiality toward the official Israeli position -- affirms Israel's cautious stance. "Israel's current government -- its reputation notwithstanding -- appears less inclined at this point to take the risk twice taken by its more centrist predecessor of initiating hostilities, seeking to prove it can maintain stability and worried about a more hostile international environment," the ICG report observes. "Despite voicing alarm at Hizbollah's military growth, it has displayed restraint."

That "military growth" has, incidentally, been steadily underway since the end of the 2006 hostilities. As early as February 2007, the Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt was complaining to a reporter from The Times that "the state of Hezbollah is already in existence in south Lebanon." Hezbollahstan has now bolstered its military capabilities with 20,000 more fighters and an arsenal of 40,000 missiles -- one reason why the US Administration fears that a further transfer of missiles from Syria to Hezbollah would, as PJ Crowley put it, place "Lebanon at significant risk."

The ICG report notes that the situation in the region "is exceptionally quiet and uniquely dangerous, both for the same reason. The build-up in military forces and threats of an all-out war that would spare neither civilians nor civilian infrastructure, together with the worrisome prospect of its regionalisation, are effectively deterring all sides." There are several variables, however, which might overturn this fragile balance.

A deadly conflict in Lebanon could derail the prospect of direct talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, thus boosting Hamas at just the time that the Obama Administration is urging the PA to drop its reticence. Iran also has a vested interest in opening up a western front. In the last fortnight, a host of countries from the United States to the European Union to Japan have added a new layer of sanctions to those already agreed by the UN Security Council in response to Tehran's continued nuclear defiance. And Hezbollah -- as Sheikh Naim Qassem confessed in a 2007 interview with Iranian broadcaster Al Qawathar -- invariably does Iran's bidding, to the point of securing clearance for its operations from Iran's leaders.

The current situation is novel insofar as the potential stakes of war are much higher. But the strategy of drawing Israel into a war and then blaming it for "aggression" is a depressingly familiar one.