Why Hezbollah Is Edging Closer to War

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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 about to happen, involving Hezbollah. 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 Hezbollah begins. But there is another development that showed the seriousness of the impending conflict, and that is the warning given by Hezbollah that the deal brokered two years ago in Doha is about to collapse - a deal made after Hezbollah's military attack against Sunni forces left 90 dead. Fearing that a civil war could break out, the different Sunni, Christian and Shiite 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 Hezbollah 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 president of Syria made a joint visit to the country.

Mohammad Raad, a Hezbollah member of the Lebanese parliament, while addressing a group of supporters, stated that the Lebanese government is facing a new threat, and that the Rafiq Hariri murder trial has been politicized to serve Israel's interests. In other words, any accusation against Hezbollah will be interpreted as an act of treason in Israel's favor.

The question that must be asked then in this: If Hezbollah 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. Hezbollah could get involved in a military confrontation with Israel without warning that the Doha agreement is about to collapse. In fact, even if Israel were its only target, Hezbollah 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 Shiite 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. Hezbollah 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 Hezbollah is not an organization to be meddled 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 Hezbollah's blessing, could have been a test. This would not be the first time that Hezbollah underwrote a small attack to test Israeli and international will prior to making a major move. Back in 2005, Hezbollah forces attempted to kidnap Israeli soldiers near the village of Rajar, but failed and lost four soldiers. 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 Hezbollah more popular inside Lebanon. The good news for the Lebanese population is that this could encourage Hezbollah to focus on Israel, and prevent it from taking on domestic elements. Otherwise, the possibility that Hezbollah 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 may be. The good news for Hezbollah 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 Hezbollah willing to wait until Sept. 25, the date of the end of the current freeze, to find out?

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