Friday, November 07, 2008

Israel sets new rules on Lebanon targets

AMIR MIZROCH and BRENDA GAZZAR , THE JERUSALEM POST In any future conflict with Hizbullah, Israel will likely cite the Shi'ite group's increasing influence within the Lebanese cabinet as a legitimate reason to target Lebanon's entire infrastructure, government sources have told The Jerusalem Post. In the Second Lebanon War, the IAF did target some of Lebanon's infrastructure but was asked to stop by the US and others. According to assessments in Israel, Hizbullah's influence over Lebanese politics is expected to grow, and it is set to gain at least two more cabinet posts in elections next spring - likely the Interior Ministry and, as a remote possibility, the defense portfolio. Hizbullah already has a veto on cabinet decisions. There are no major diplomatic and security decisions taken by Lebanon that are not informed by or initiated by Hizbullah, and the Shi'ite group has been given the official title of Liberator of the Shaba Farms (Mount Dov) and the (seven) Shi'ite villages in the Galilee. Hizbullah is four times stronger militarily today than it was at the end of the last Lebanon war. In August 2006 Hizbullah had 14,000 rockets, with Hadera being the southernmost city within their range. Two years after the war, Hizbullah has some 40,000 rockets and Dimona (with its nuclear reactor), Yeroham and Arad, all in the Negev, are at risk, the Post has learned. Hizbullah has a long-term plan to fortify positions and create strategic depth north of the Litani River, inside Shi'ite villages south of the Litani, and in the Bekaa Valley, its traditional stronghold. Should the next Lebanese defense minister be a member of Hizbullah or from a Hizbullah-affiliated party, Israel could argue that there is no difference between the Lebanese army and Hizbullah, and act accordingly, according to assessments in Jerusalem. Meanwhile, Lebanon's rival political factions briefly resumed talks this week on a national defense strategy that includes the fate of Hizbullah's weapons. The discussion are to resume on December 22. In their last meeting on September 16, the factions agreed to work toward a national defense strategy that could eventually integrate Hizbullah's weapons into the army. However, this issue will likely not be decided until after the parliamentary elections this spring, experts say. Wednesday's meeting, which was cut short after a participant fell ill, was the second time the factions met since a deal was reached in May that defused a long-standing political crisis. Although the parties were not likely to agree on a defense strategy during these talks, they still had significance for the country, said Nadim Shehadi, associate fellow at the Middle Eastern Program at the London-based Chatham House. "The process of discussing them politically, rather than in the streets of Beirut, is definitely preferable," Shehadi said. More than 80 people were killed in May when street fighting broke out in Beirut between Hizbullah gunmen and Sunnis, nearly plunging Lebanon into another civil war. "It will be the parliamentary elections in May and June that will decide the future of any defense strategy in Lebanon, rather than sitting around a table every six weeks and talking about it," a Western journalist based in Lebanon said. If the Hizbullah-led opposition were to win the upcoming elections, they would have a much easier time dictating the terms of any defense strategy, he said. Hizbullah maintains that its form of "resistance" is the best means of maintaining Lebanese sovereignty against any aggression. While Hizbullah accepts having close coordination with the Lebanese army, it insisted on preserving its autonomy and thus a separate chain of command to fight against Israel, the journalist said. On the other hand, the Western-backed March 14th coalition insists that Hizbullah should come under government control. While it wants to disarm Hizbullah altogether, it would settle for seeing them folded into the Lebanese army, the journalist said. The upcoming elections are expected to be very tight between the Hizbullah-led opposition and the March 14th coalition. "It's going to be very, very close," he said. "The country is split down the middle in terms of support for one side or the other." AP contributed to this report.

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