Saturday, February 16, 2008

Israel's twin dynamics

Syria and Iran announced yesterday that they would conduct a joint investigation into the car bombing on Wednesday that killed top Hezbollah operative Imad Mugniyeh. Given their shared interests in Hezbollah, the conclusions reached by Tehran and Damascus are not difficult to predict — Israel, without or without Washington’s blessing, did it. In other words, this will hardly be an unbiased investigation, or the kind of probe that one would like to see regarding the assassination, three years earlier, of Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri.

Myth and conspiracy theories abound in the Middle East, and all of them point to, again, Israel or the US. Although the Mugniyeh assassination bears all the hallmarks of an Israeli hit operation, there might have been some Syrian complicity in the coup, which a serious investigation could uncover but in the present case would most assuredly smother.

What this means, therefore, is that probe or not, all the arrows will point to Israel. And Jerusalem knows this.

Hezbollah has already named Mugniyeh’s successor, but its threat of responding to Israel’s “open war” in kind, anywhere in the world, has yet to materialize. If it did, however, and if Hezbollah were to strike against Israeli interests somewhere in the world, it would be playing right into Israel’s hands.

Two principal dynamics help explain why Israel was likely behind the assassination and why, if it was, it chose to strike when it did.

One is that Israel was humiliated by its incapacity to defeat Hezbollah during its war in Lebanon in July 2006. The pressure within the Israeli defense establishment to “finish the job,” or to exorcize Israel's own "Vietnam Syndrome," cannot be ignored.

The second, as I noted in the Feb. 13 entry on Mugniyeh’s assassination, is that Israel, which has long pushed for a military solution to Iran’s nuclear threat, fears that the findings of the US National Intelligence Estimate have taken the military option off the table. Seeing that intelligence has “failed” it, Israel may well have engineered an act — Mugniyeh’s assassination — that, given Hezbollah’s expected reaction (retaliation), could force the US to come to Israel’s assistance military by targeting the organization's main sponsor.

Put in simpler terms, Israel wants another go at Hezbollah and wants the military option against Tehran back on the table.

The ball is now in Hezbollah’s camp. Given its own domestic pressures, it might be very difficult for the Shiite organization to show restraint this time around.

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