On Tuesday, Israel's Government Press Office sent out a press release linking to a report titled "Hezbollah: Portrait of a Terrorist Organization." It may be a coincidence — it's possible the report was just completed and simply happened to be released this week. But viewed in the context of rising tensions in the region, it's also possible that Israel decided it's an opportune moment to try to build anti-Hezbollah sentiment in the international community.
And tensions have certainly been running high. First came dubious claims from the U.S. and Israel regarding Syria's chemical weapons program. Then, when the U.S. stationed 17 warships off the Syrian coast, a Western invasion seemed imminent. But Defense Secretary Leon Panetta mysteriously claimed chemical weapons intelligence had "leveled off" and the warships were withdrawn.
Now comes a new round of escalation, this time led by Israel. And it's not just accusations — last week, Israel struck several targets inside Syria, including a weapons convoy reportedly heading for Lebanon. And with Hezbollah in the mix, this has become a very dangerous game indeed.
After Israel's latest war with Gaza ended in November, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah warned Israel against attacking Lebanon, claiming the group now has "thousands of rockets that will fall on Tel Aviv" if Israel strikes at Hezbollah.
It's impossible to know whether Hezbollah actually has the capacity to do this. Likewise, no one (probably including Benjamin Netanyahu himself) can say if Israel will invade Lebanon in the future (possibly in response to Hezbollah's reported involvement in the terrorist bombing of an Israeli tourist bus in Bulgaria), or if it will follow through on a proposal to enter Syria and create a 10-mile buffer zone.
The one thing that's certain is that all parties involved have walked out onto a tightrope and are desperately trying not to keep their balance. An Iranian strike on Israel would certainly end with an Israeli invasion of Iran, and Israel clearly has the military capacity to depose Ahmadinejad. But that would pull Israel's resources away from the Syrian border, and could provoke counterattacks from Syria or Lebanon.
On the other hand, an Israeli invasion of Syria to establish a buffer zone would be reminiscent of their occupation of the Golan Heights, and would expose them to condemnation from the international community.
And any Israeli strike on Lebanon would almost certainly end badly for both countries. Hezbollah would feel obliged to follow through on its threat to launch rockets at Tel Aviv, but actually striking Tel Aviv would be a disaster for Lebanon, as it would necessitate a response from Israel, likely a full-scale invasion. Israel has begun installing Iron Dome missile defense posts along the Syrian and Lebanese borders, somewhat mitigating the likelihood of this scenario. But the Iron Dome isn't perfect, and a missile strike on Tel Aviv would still be a possibility.
With so many competing interests at play, every country in the region must be cautious not to take any steps without thoroughly considering the outcome. As they navigate the minefield of Middle Eastern politics, regional leaders will have to be even more careful than usual about where they step.