By BENNY AVNI
Last Updated: 4:32 PM, July 13, 2010
Four years after the last war between Israel and Hezbollah, the Middle East is rife with expectations of another round. "The July War Is Not Over" was yesterday's headline In the pro-Hezbollah Lebanese newspaper al-Akhbar.
In fact, neither Israel nor Hezbollah wants to fight just now -- but it's Iran that holds the key.
That's a big problem for the Obama administration, which has organized its Mideast efforts around the attempt to solve the Palestinian-Israeli dispute. War on Israel's northern border would suspend (at best) those negotiations -- thereby stalling US diplomacy in the region.
Four years ago, Israel launched an air assault and limited ground attack in retaliation for a July 12, 2006, cross-border Hezbollah attack that killed three Israeli soldiers and left two missing in action. But airpower proved less effective than hoped -- and Israel suffered an unprecedented attack on its civilian centers during that Second Lebanon War.
Also in that war, Israel's enemies discovered a new and increasingly effective weapon, harnessing "international law" (war-governing treaties that are signed between states but don't apply to militias) to accuse Israel of war "crimes."
As it is yet to find an effective answer to such challenges, Jerusalem is very reluctant to relaunch hostilities now.
This, even though Hezbollah is stronger now than it was before. Its spokesmen increasingly boast of their shiny new weapons and their ability to hit undisclosed "target banks" inside Israel -- targets that, unlike in 2006, include major cities in the center of the country.
Last week, the Israeli Defense Force released aerial photographs showing numerous missiles deployed near and in villages in southern Lebanon -- that is, in areas where, under the UN Security Council resolution that ended the 2006 war, the only weapons should be those of the Lebanese Army and of UNIFIL, the international force that was deployed to enforce that resolution.
French troops operating as part of UNIFIL are regularly harassed. In recent weeks, "villagers" stoned several contingents of French soldiers and stole their vehicles; the "locals" have also prevented French forces from entering areas UNIFIL is supposed to inspect for illegal weapons.
(Why they bothered keeping UNIFIL out is another question, since the "inspectors" mostly turn their backs when they see any illegal Hezbollah activities.)
Last Friday, the UN Security Council issued a statement claiming that all 15 of its members "deplore" the attacks on the French UNIFIL troops. But (as always), the council failed to name the entity it deplored. The statement didn't even mention Hezbollah, which everyone in the region knows is behind the attacks.
In other words, Hezbollah can expect to keep growing stronger without war -- whereas it took a heavy beating in the open fighting. In particular, it's built a stronger political position in Lebanon -- but could lose it if it's blamed for the nationwide destruction that a new war with Israel would bring.
Thus, for all its bravado (it celebrates the war as the greatest Arab "victory" ever over Israel), Hezbollah has little appetite for a repeat.
But it might be unable to say no if its benefactor and master, the Islamic Republic of Iran, demands action against Israel.
Right now, the Iranian regime fears it will soon begin to feel the pinch of various new sanctions imposed by the Security Council, the European Union and the United States. It might see a new Lebanese war as the best way to divert everyone's attention away from its nuclear program.
Nor is Hezbollah the only proxy army available to Tehran: Founding and arming the Lebanese group worked so well at extending its influence over the region that Iran repeated the trick by becoming Hamas' patron, too.
So Obama's central Mideast goal (an Israeli-Palestinian deal) is at Iran's mercy. Tehran, meanwhile, can aid its prime objective (going nuclear) by throwing a wrench into US diplomacy. And if it does go nuclear, it can use its proxies even more readily, with vastly reduced fear of retaliation.
Obama's Middle East team should give up on the Palestinian "track" for now, and focus like a laser on Iran instead. Unless it's defanged, no solution to any of the intractable regional disputes will be possible.
Read more: http://www.nypost.com/p/news/opinion/opedcolumnists/hezbollah_israel_war_if_iran_wants_QtlirWV5yM5SVVsaKQa3vK#ixzz0tcTx5akI
Click to view image: 'Hezbollah-Israel: A war if Iran wants'
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