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Hezbollah “Simulates Coup” in Beirut

The American media appear to have decided that you don’t need to be too concerned about the results of the US tribunal investigating the 2005 assassination of Lebanese PM Rafik Hariri. Yes, the UN will almost certainly indict members of Hezbollah for carrying out the hit; yes, they might even indict the Ayatollah Khameini, Supreme Leader of Iran, for ordering it, but none of these people is likely to lose sleep over something so piddling as a UN indictment. And if they’re not bothered, we don’t need to be.

This reading does not take into account the likely results of a civil war in Lebanon. Let’s break it down.

Iran is the de facto ruler of South Lebanon via Hezbollah and wants the whole country. Plan A was to set up Hezbollah as Lebanon’s tenacious defender against Israel and thereby infiltrate the government (done and done). But Lebanese opinion could swing quickly against Hezbollah if it is revealed that it was that group, with Iran behind it, that blew up a popular prime minister. If there is open defiance of Hezbollah in the streets, civil war could erupt, and Iran would be in the position of having to take Lebanon by force; there would no longer be any pretext that Lebanon swung east of its own accord. A rape of Lebanon is Iran’s Plan B — perhaps not its original intention, but something it is entirely capable of carrying out.

In sum: The UN indictments could lead to civil war, which Iran-backed Hezbollah would almost certainly win. With Lebanon subdued, Ahmadinejad could then step in openly to take up the Muslim cudgels against the American-Israeli axis — and he’d be doing it from Israel’s northern doorstep. Nukes shmukes. Who needs ’em?

I’d say this is a situation worth paying attention to. Is the above forecast theoretical? Sure. But three events took place yesterday that moved the pieces a few steps towards checkmate Lebanon.

  1. Saudi Arabia decided Lebanon is now too hot to handle and withdrew from mediation between Hezbollah and Sa’ad Hariri. (Note that “mediation” means “convincing Sa’ad to do what Hezbollah wants,” which is to condemn the UN tribunal, disavow its findings and refuse to countenance the arrest of members of Hezbollah. It’s unclear what he would get in return, other than permission to continue breathing.)
  2. Ahmadinejad made a speech in which he ordered the US, Israel, and several European nations to stop their “sedition” in Lebanon or face the consequences. True, he does go in for these “I will cut off your hand” speeches with some regularity, but we might want to pay a little more attention than usual because of…
  3. …the events on the streets of Beirut yesterday. Black-clad Hezbollah militants, all carrying hand-held radios, spread across Beirut in a “simulated coup” of the capital. (It was simulated because they were not armed.) They appeared at twelve strategic points, including the entries to the city, the port and the airport. Frightened parents pulled their children out of school and the security services closed off access to the Grand Serail, the seat of government in downtown Beirut, upon sighting militants within 400 meters of the building. According to the Jerusalem Post, the two-hour exercise was apparently a demonstration of a Hezbollah first response to a release of the UN findings.

More on this to come.

Tensions Rise Across Arab World

The game-changing protests sparked by a fruit-seller’s self-immolation in Tunisia are spreading, with more protesters horrifically setting themselves on fire in Egypt, Algeria and Mauritania. In this al-Jazeera video, Egyptian protesters are seen going nose-to-nose with riot police in Cairo. In Jordan, thousands have poured into the streets to protest the state of the economy (“Bread is a red line”) and demand the resignation of the government, with demonstrations reaching the parliament building in Amman. King Abdullah is said to be “very nervous.”

In Israel, Netanyahu said the upheaval in Tunisia and ensuing unrest across the Arab world reflect the depth of regional instability and illuminate Israel’s need for solid security arrangements in any deal that might be struck with the Palestinians. “We need to lay the foundations of security in any agreement that we make,” he said. “We cannot simply say ‘We are signing a peace agreement,’ close our eyes and say ‘We did it’ because we do not know with any clarity that the peace will indeed be honored.” Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat claims that’s a bluff. “If there was a tsunami in Asia, a flood in Latin America or a lunar eclipse, Netanyahu would use it as a pretext not to negotiate,” he said.

Barak Bolts From Labor, Forms New Faction; Laborites Flee Bibi’s Coalition

This is pretty small potatoes compared to what’s going on elsewhere in our neighborhood, but Israel is having a political upheaval of its own.

Bibi’s defense minister, Ehud Barak, has quit the Labor Party — of which he was chairman — and is forming a new faction, Atzmaut (Independence). The split was reportedly the product of “the intensive and secret intervention of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu” and was conducted “like an elite General Staff operation,”according to one of Bibi’s aides. If Haaretz is to be believed, the impetus for the split was provided by the Americans, who let it be known recently that they are disgusted with Barak for “deceiving” them with regard to his influence over Bibi concerning the peace process. Bibi apparently saw Barak’s discomfiture as an opportunity to bring him closer while simultaneously off-loading the Labor portion of his coalition, which has been a serious irritant to him for quite some time.

Accompanying Barak into the new faction will be four former Laborite members of the current government: Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai, and MK’s Shalom Simhon, Einat Wilf and Ori Noked. The rupture reflects the internal strife that has been plaguing the Labor Party for months over its continuing participation in Bibi’s government. Barak has been under constant fire from Laborites fed up with his refusal to quit a government that in their view is largely responsible for the degeneration of the peace process with the Palestinians.

Barak’s object is to stay inside Bibi’s government in a “centrist, Zionist, and democratic party,” and a Likud-Atzmaut coalition agreement is being hammered out even as I type this post. Labor ministers Isaac Herzog (Social Affairs), Benjamin Ben-Eliezer (Trade, Industry and Labor), and Avishay Braverman (Minority Affairs) bolted the current coalition as soon as news broke of Barak’s abandonment of the party. (Had they not resigned of their own accord, they would almost certainly have been dismissed.)

The three might well be relieved to no longer be associated with a government with which they have a passionate ideological disagreement and a party leader in whom they have no faith. They certainly aren’t mincing words. As Herzog put it in his resignation, “The time has come to stop lying to ourselves and leave the government which has brought us to a dead-end and forced upon us Avigdor Lieberman and his party with its unacceptable racist discourse, which threatens our democracy.” Ben-Eliezer said Yitzhak Rabin is “turning over in his grave” at the damage Barak has wrought upon the Labor Party. Ex-Minority Affairs Minister Avishay Braverman put it neatly: he told Haaretz that the “real struggle now” is to “topple the regime of Netanyahu, Lieberman, and Barak.”

It’s as well that Barak is holed up trying to get the wording of the new coalition agreement in place because he’s being roundly attacked from all sides. MK Aryeh Eldad, of the right-wing National Union – National Religious Party, said rather pithily that “[t]he fragmentation of the Labor Party is only half the battle; the second half will take place when Barak ends his political career and puts us out of our misery.” Weighing in on the far left was MK Ilan Gilon, whip of the Meretz party, who said Barak “never shared the values of the Labor movement…We can only hope that the rest of the Labor faction still sitting in the government will leave the coalition as well.” Opposition leader and Kadima chairwoman Tzipi Livni sees a possible opportunity in the disarray. “The Netanyahu government is a narrow government that is crumbling from within due to political degeneration and the absence of direction or vision,” Livni said. “The only medicine for the government’s political opportunism and loss of principles is elections. Kadima calls again today in a loud clear voice – go to elections.” A source Haaretz declines to identify — intriguingly enough, a Likudnik — said Barak “has established his own Lieberman-like political party, and has surrounded himself with four dwarves who will do his bidding.”

Fur is flying, mud is being slung, but no one is likely to be physically injured and little in terms of policy is likely to change.

Fasten Your Seat Belts, Folks

The word over here — as yet unconfirmed — is that the UN tribunal investigating the 2005 assassination of Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri will indict not only members of Hezbollah for carrying out the killing but also Iran’s spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei for ordering the hit.

Sources close to the tribunal have allegedly said that “Iranians considered Hariri to be an agent of Saudi Arabia, and felt that killing him would pave the way for a Hezbollah takeover of Lebanon.” Syria isn’t off the hook — both Syrian President Bashar Assad and head of Syrian intelligence Assef Shawkat have allegedly been fingered as well — but the big news is the naming of Khameini.

A few weeks ago, Khameini preemptively declared all the tribunal’s findings, whatever they may turn out to be, “null and void.” At the time, the general assumption was that he was protecting his Hezbollah protégés. If the UN really is going to name him as the mastermind, President Obama will have little choice but to go beyond generic statements of support for Hariri (fils). It will no longer be possible to ignore the fact that Hezbollahis Iran, that Iran occupies south Lebanon, and that Iran directly threatens Israel — and therefore the US — not from a distance but along Israel’s own northern border. The indictment of Khameini, if it materializes, will show Hezbollah’s aggressions, up to and including the assassination of foreign heads of state, to be Iranian aggressions. If Obama backs away from confronting this extremely uncomfortable truth in the face of a UN indictment, it would constitute a grievous, and possibly very dangerous, capitulation.

This all has the potential to escalate fast, although I hasten to add two caveats: 1) the report of a Khameini indictment might not be true; and 2) none of the parties wants a confrontation. This report first appeared on Newsmax (an American news outlet) and was repeated on the Lebanese news website Naharnet and in the Israeli press, but I have not been able to find confirmation. More information should become available later: Lebanese daily Al Nahar is reporting that the tribunal will submit a draft indictment later today.

I’ll let you know.

BREAKING: Hezbollah Dissolves Lebanese Government

Hezbollah has followed through on its threat to topple the Lebanese government if PM Sa’ad Hariri refused to convene an emergency cabinet meeting to condemn the UN tribunal that is investigating the 2005 assassination of Hariri’s father, then-PM Rafik Hariri. The tribunal is expected to announce indictments of Hezbollah members for the bombing, which also killed twenty-two other people.

Sa’ad Hariri has consistently refused to condemn the tribunal, holding fast even in the face of efforts by the Saudis and the Syrians to strong-arm a capitulation. In response, ten Hezbollah and Hezbollah-supporting ministers (out of a total of 30) walked out of the fragile “unity” government this afternoon, forcing its collapse. An eleventh minister joined them this evening. Hariri was meeting with President Obama at the time of the walkout and was forced to cut short his trip to return to the crisis. (The photo above was taken earlier today.) The White House issued the following statement:

The efforts by the Hizballah-led coalition to collapse the Lebanese government only demonstrate their own fear and determination to block the government’s ability to conduct its business and advance the aspirations of all of the Lebanese people. The President and Prime Minister reaffirmed their commitment to strengthening Lebanon’s sovereignty and independence, implementing all relevant United Nations Security Council Resolutions, and continuing a wide-ranging and long-term partnership between the United States and Lebanon.

During their meeting, the President stressed the importance of the work of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon as a means to help end the era of political assassinations with impunity in Lebanon.  The President and Prime Minister specifically discussed united efforts with France, Saudi Arabia, and other key international and regional actors to maintain calm in Lebanon and ensure that the work of the Tribunal continues unimpeded by third parties.  The President and Prime Minister expressed their determination to achieve both stability and justice in Lebanon during this challenging period of government volatility, and agreed that all parties should avoid threats or actions that could cause instability.

Be that as it may, as the New York Times notes, Hariri Jr.’s position is tenuous at best and American support is by no means assured:

In contrast to 2005, Hezbollah’s adversaries — gathered around Mr. Hariri — have fewer options and less support than they once did, emblematic of the vast changes in Lebanon’s political landscape the past few years. While the Bush administration wholeheartedly backed Mr. Hariri and his allies then, President Obama has not pledged the same kind of support. Syria, whose influence was waning in 2005, has re-emerged in Lebanon, and even its detractors here have sought some kind of relationship with it. Most Lebanese also vividly recall the speed at which Hezbollah and its allies vanquished their foes in just a few days of street fighting in Beirut in May 2008.

“Who are your allies these days?” Sateh Noureddine, a columnist with As-Safir newspaper, asked of Mr. Hariri’s camp. “You are going to get beaten on the streets and you will not be able to respond.”

Shiite (i.e., pro-Hezbollah) vs. Sunni (i.e., pro-Hariri) bloodshed is not guaranteed to break out, but if it does, Hezbollah will win. It could then attempt to take full control of Lebanon by force, if that is the will of its Iranian and Syrian patrons. Israel is keeping its head down for the time being, but Sheik Nasrallah has been trying for some time to throw responsibility for the Hariri assassination on us as a deflective measure. That tactic hasn’t gotten him very far, and he is perfectly capable of launching a serious fight with us as a “unifying” measure — indeed, he might calculate that that would be a wiser move than coming out swinging against Lebanese citizens in the streets of Beirut.

Needless to say, I’ll keep you posted.

The Other Big Question

There’s been much discussion in the MSM and the blogosphere linking the vitriolic language of politics with the appalling act of violence just committed in Tucson, as well as much discussion of the discussion — is it relevant? Is it appropriate? Is it opportunistic? Is it base?

But there’s another conversation to be had in the wake of the attack. I was talking to a friend yesterday about the shootings — another transplanted American married to an Israeli — and her response was an impassioned plea for across-the-board gun control in the US. The argument was striking to my ears simply because it’s been such a very long time since I’ve heard anyone propose such a thing. Israel is, after all, something of a case study on the lack of correlation between a ubiquity of guns and crazy gun violence. There are M-16s slung on the backs of young soldiers everywhere, my eight-year-old walks past an armed guard on his way into school every morning — even I, nondescript suburban Mom that I am, am routinely asked if I’m packing every time I park my car in an underground lot or walk into a mall. (If I were carrying, I would be asked to show my gun license.) Schoolteachers and school officials are permitted (provided they are IDF veterans, as they almost invariably are) to wear guns to class (and the only school shooting I can think of was a Hamas terrorist attack in a yeshiva lunchroom two years ago). Incidents of soldiers using their weapons to commit acts of violence at home have occurred, but are extremely rare.

In short: guns are in full view and pretty readily available here. But here’s the thing: they’re not handed out like candy, and you can’t just buy whatever floats your boat. Loughner is not a veteran, is only 22 and has a drug offense on his record. Those points alone would likely have quashed any attempt by an equivalent young Israeli to get a gun license. He would also have been required to present certification from a medical doctor that he is fit to carry a weapon, and all the reports I’ve read concur that Loughner had been behaving very strangely for quite some time prior to his purchasing a gun — so much so that there is retroactive speculation that he is schizophrenic. The odds of such behavior being completely ignored by a doctor certifying a gun license applicant on behalf of the Israeli health ministry are slim to nil.

Also, I understand Loughner was using a “high-capacity” ammunition magazine in a semiautomatic; he was thus able to shoot off thirty rounds before having to stop to reload. Leaving aside the magazine for a moment, on what possible grounds was this kid issued a semiautomatic? In Israel, if I’m not mistaken, the only civilians who can get their hands on semiautomatics are “licensed animal control officers,” and their licenses entitle them only to limited-capacity magazines. Surely some regulation is a good thing?

I’m fully aware that historically, the disarming of the population is often a precursor to tyranny and strongly support the right of the individual to defend him- or herself; it’s abhorrent that anyone should be required to abdicate that right. But there are ways and means. The “thin end of the wedge” argument — that it’s dangerous to allow regulation of the sale of semiautomatics to unstable young people because that’ll trickle down to bans on the purchase of 12-gauge shotguns by upstanding citizens who wouldn’t dream of using them outside a duck blind — is more than just silly; it costs lives. The phrase “gun control” has come to connote “eventual gun ban”, but perhaps it’s time to take back the narrative, no? The convulsive desire to ban all guns in the wake of a gun atrocity is patently absurd — but I’d argue that some control is clearly needed here. Would you agree?

Bashar, We Didn’t Know You Had It In You

It appears that Bashar al-Assad, mild-mannered ophthalmologist, genetic cousin of Beaker and accidental president of Syria, was the mastermind behind the wave of Muslim rioting that followed the publication of the Danish cartoons of Mohammed in 2006. If the Wikileak cable that revealed this information is to be believed, Bashar kicked off the demonstrations with a direct instruction — and, even more strikingly, it was his word that brought the chaos to a halt.

Bashar is widely perceived as but a faint shadow of his father Hafez (who never, in fact, intended him to be president; that role was meant for Bashar’s elder brother Basil, who died in a car crash). Gangly, soft-spoken, always slightly bewildered-looking, and rarely the generator of the kinds of hysterical headlines that characterize this region (purple proclamations are not his style), Bashar gives the impression of weakness. Yet here we have him orchestrating a series of events that inflamed the entire Arab world and put the rest of us on notice that we’d damn well better toe the line when it comes to Muslim sensitivities: mock us and die, infidel.

That’s just not the kind of thing many of us would have expected from quiet, blinking Bashar. Remember that he is a secularist, allegedly pro-democracy, and far from an intimate friend of Islamic fundamentalists. If he was indeed behind the rioting over the cartoons — a risky move that could have backfired within Syria — it suggests not only that he is controlling his home-grown Islamists with an iron hand but that he is capable of one hell of a slick double game. It suggests a rather impressively Machiavellian ability to straddle allegiances to further one’s own political ends — a talent we in Israel would do well to note.

Bashar has not performed acts of widespread ruthlessness on a par with his father (yet), but I’m starting to wonder what else he might be capable of. Note that he was almost certainly also involved in the assassination of Lebanese PM Rafik Hariri, and will probably get away with it. (The Hezbollah trigger men are on the UN hot seat, and that’s fine by him.) He might be a much more cunning leader than he’s been given credit for. If Bashar is able to light up — and, more importantly, cool down — the whole Arab world with a quiet word, he is worth a much more concerted courtship by Israel. Any substantive developments on that track would require tremendous bravery on Bashar’s part — no Arab leader can make peace with Israel lightly — but he may well possess it. And if he does, he could be a formidable ally.

Eye on Lebanon: War(s) Brewing?

Tensions have been rising in Lebanon for some time over the revelation of Hezbollah’s role in the 2005 assassination of Lebanese PM Rafik Hariri. The hoo-ha last week over the discovery of alleged Israeli spying equipment in Lebanese territory was a fairly transparent attempt to deflect attention by rallying Lebanese popular sentiment in a familiar direction. (The fact that the devices were discovered several years ago, but the indignation reserved for last week, is a clue.)

A UN tribunal set up to investigate the Hariri assassination led directly to the withdrawal of Syria from Lebanon after 29 years of occupation, so Sheik Hassan Nasrallah (Hezbollah’s big cheese) has reason to be uncomfortable. He has threatened a “new era of resistance” directed towards any Lebanese who do not support the group against the tribunal, up to and including current Lebanese PM Sa’ad Hariri — the murdered man’s son.

In May, Spiegel broke the story that the UN was likely to name Hezbollah for the crime. Nasrallah subsequently admitted that Hezbollah members would likely be indicted, but said (three guesses? ) that the tribunal was set up by the Israelis and therefore a pack of Zionist lies. (The prime suspect is believed to be Mustafa Badr al-Din, a senior member of Hezbollah and brother-in-law of arch-terrorist and Hezbollah macher Imad Fayez Mugniyah.)

Not long thereafter, Sa’ad Hariri said publicly that he does not believe Syria was behind his father’s murder and that he supports the UN tribunal, which is about as close to a direct accusation as he is likely to get. Nasrallah countered by demanding that the Lebanese government boycott the tribunal, a move that directly challenged the government’s authority (Hezbollah is part of a so-called unity government; it has no right to dictate the government’s actions) and that prompted a swat from the UN.

Last month, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation broke the news that substantial additional evidence has been uncovered that “points overwhelmingly to the fact that the assassins were from Hezbollah.” Last week, Nasrallah again directly threatened all Lebanese who cooperate with the tribunal (and he will “cut the hand” of anyone who attempts to arrest members of Hezbollah). Simultaneously with these threats, the alleged Israeli spying devices were pulled out of cold storage.

So what’s next? UN Special Envoy Terje Roed-Larsen sees a “hurricane” on the horizon, and he may be right. Nasrallah’s back is against the wall, and he will almost certainly see Hezbollah’s only defensive maneuver as an offensive one — or rather two, one against those Lebanese who won’t fall in line and one against Israel. His importunings to the Lebanese people — that Israel is the real enemy — sound increasingly frantic, and a frantic, Iran-backed Nasrallah is a dangerous quantity indeed. His goal is the subjugation of Lebanon, but her people have not forgotten Hariri. They threw off the Syrian yoke, and they will not necessarily submit quietly while Hariri’s murderers ascend.

The UN tribunal’s final report is expected in early 2011. Civil war in Lebanon is a distinct possibility, as is the launching by Hezbollah of a Hail Mary war with Israel.

Israel Eases Blockade; Hamas Steps Up War

The prevailing topic of discussion here is the Carmel fire and its implications — at least one political career is in crisis amid the torrent of recriminations and dire warnings about Israel’s overall readiness for catastrophe — but the war to the southwest is still going on. Hamas has kicked things up a notch, in fact.

Things had already begun to heat up last month. On one busy occasion, Hamas spent a full night shooting Qassams into the western Negev, then capped it off with a long-range Grad strike and seven mortars, one of which contained phosphorus.

A few days ago, two armed terrorists were killed by the IDF as they attempted to plant explosives at the border fence near Kibbutz Kfar Aza. Yesterday (Wednesday), during the day, Hamas shot mortars into a Negev kibbutz, damaging a civilian home. In the evening, another mortar barrage from Gaza into the Eshkol border region injured the head of security at one of the area kibbutzim; he was airlifted to Soroka Hospital in Beersheva with shrapnel that landed in his neck while he was standing outside his house. Local Israelis have been instructed to stay indoors until further notice and the IAF has struck three locations in the Gaza Strip, at least two of which are confirmed to have been Hamas training sites.

Now, that wasn’t all that happened yesterday. The Israeli security cabinet also voted to ease the blockade on Gaza.

That kind of thing obviously doesn’t impress Hamas, so the Israelis are flapping their hands at the rest of the world. “The cabinet announcement,” so Haaretz tells us, “stipulated that alongside Israel’s efforts to better the economic situation of the population in Gaza, Israel would demand that the international community continue its boycott of the Hamas regime and continue taking steps to prevent Hamas from attaining missiles.”

I’ll leave the obvious riposte unspoken. Suffice it to say Israeli citizens are now stuck inside their homes — again — to protect themselves from Palestinian rockets. Blockade or no blockade, Hamas wants a war. The odds are growing that they will get their wish.

WikiLeaks and Israel

How has Israel responded to the WikiLeaks information dump? Mostly with a shrug.

Our anxieties about Iran’s nuclear ambitions have been largely vindicated by the extent to which our Arab neighbors obviously share our concern. Iran’s been put on defense, which marks a refreshing change. (Naturally, Israel/AIPAC/nefarious-Jews-in-general are now being accused of orchestrating the dump expressly for that purpose. Honestly, folks. We’re not that organized.)

What revelations there were about us are mostly positive, and they fall predominantly in the Friends You Didn’t Know You Had category. We’ve had high-level covert contacts with the United Arab Emirates for quite some time, for example, and we have the sympathy of the Emir of Qatar (who knew?). We’ve also received anti-terrorism intel from the Pakistanis. Both the US and Israel are worried about the direction Erdogan is taking Turkey, but that’s hardly stop-the-presses stuff.

I’m actually a little surprised that there weren’t at least a few embarrassing cables flying around. Israelis can be spectacularly tactless — their attempts at diplomacy are often flat-footed because they’re genuinely, culturally ignorant of the term — and I’d thought it probable that even if we’d managed to keep our own indiscretions safely hidden on encrypted phone lines, the reciprocal feelings of the Americans towards us might have been jotted down in a confidential memo or two. Nothing, though. A quarter of a million documents and not a single diss?

Huh. Maybe it really was us.