Saturday, June 21, 2008

Israel's Diplomatic Pinball Game Focuses on Hezbollah More Than Iran

A McClatchy Newspapers report today about Israel's recent flurry of diplomatic efforts—the cease fire with Hamas, its talks with Syria, its overture to Lebanon—tries to make sense out of Israel's multiball play:

The nascent negotiations represent Israel's most concerted diplomatic effort so far to blunt the expanding influence of Iran by striking deals with some of Tehran's allies.

"There's a real strategic imperative to undermine the Iranian camp and build up a counter-coalition," said Mark Heller , a leading researcher at Israel's Institute for National Security Studies.

Iran is a piece of it. But I think you have to do one more calculation to get to the real bottom line, which is Hezbollah.

First of all, Syria, a Sunni country, and Lebanon, with its secular-leaning government, are not exactly allies with Shiite Tehran.

What Syria and Lebanon have in common is Hezbollah. Certainly, Iran figures into Israel's diplomatic math, but look a little closer.

1. The main agenda item for Israel and Lebanon is the Shebba Farms territory.

2. The main agenda item for Israel and Syria is Syria's relationship with Hezbollah.

The common denominator: Hezbollah.

It's self explanatory that Hezbollah figures into the Israeli/Syrian discussion about Hezbollah. As for Shebba Farms—the disputed territory in southeast Lebanon that abuts the Israel/Golan/Syria clusterfuck? Well, it's occupied by Israel which makes Hezbollah's blood boil.

Israel's presence in Shebba is Hezbollah's number one grievance with Israel. Hezbollay cites the presence of Israeli soldiers in Shebba as the reason they remain armed in their guerrilla war against Israel. (According to UN resolution 1701, which ended the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, Hezbollah is supposed to disarm.)

Israel would be smart to negotiate away Hezbollah's excuse for remaining armed because pressure is already mounting in Lebanon for Hezbollah to chill out and join the political mainstream. Last month's deal between Hezbollah and its rival, the dominant Future Movement party, established a compromise government in which Hezbollah has an active role. Hezbollah's affinity for violence has already made them unpopular with many Lebanese, particularly after Hezbollah's bloody stand against Sunni Lebanese in Mid May. Staying in an armed, belligerent posture will deligitemize Hezbollah further as they're supposedly trying to help the battered country stabilize under the new government—a new government whose dominant party, legendary Rafik Hariri's Future Movement, is wildly popular. Handing the Lebanese government a victory like Shebba Farms would isolate Hezbollah.

Israel's talks with Syria dovetail with this strategy. For starters, Shebba is part of the Golan Heights, the long-disputed turf that Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 War. A land-for-peace swap could involve an agreement that ends Syria's patronage of Hezbollah.

Here's where it comes back to Iran, though. By isolating Hezbollah (which has always been in a relationship of convenience with Syria while actually being true BFF with its other patron, Iran) it will become clear that Iran's interest in Hezbollah is more about Shiite and Sharia expansion than it is about Israeli occupation. This move will put the Sunni Arab world even further at odds with the Shiite and Persian Iran, isolating Iran that much more.

Iran, however, is a tangent. The endgame for Israel is checking Hezbollah.

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