Sunday, March 13, 2005

TEL AVIV — Any satisfaction at watching regional rival Syria squirm under international pressure is being tempered in Israel by concerns over border instability and the growing influence of Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The anti-Israel Shi’ite militia ” which hopes to boost its political power in Lebanese elections in May ” drew hundreds of thousands of supporters into the streets of southern Lebanon yesterday in its second major show of strength in a week.

The rally was called to demand an end to American “interference” in Lebanese affairs ” a reference to the U.S. push for Syrian troops to leave the country ” but Israeli officials are under no illusions about the group’s ultimate aims.

Founded with the goal of driving Israeli forces out of Lebanon, Hezbollah has maintained a strong anti-Israeli bias even as it has evolved into the main social and political organization in southern Lebanon neighboring Israel.

While Lebanese election laws likely will prevent it from winning a majority in the May elections, it is poised to play a prominent role in the next government, making any rapprochement with Israel unlikely.

The ferment in Lebanon “doesn’t inaugurate a new dawn for Israeli-Lebanese relations,” said Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, a fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies. “Lebanon will be the last country we will make peace with.”

“The Shi’ites are letting everyone know you can’t make a new order without us,” he said.

Indeed, yesterday’s rally in Nabatiyeh, Lebanon, was almost as large as the Hezbollah demonstration last week in Beirut, which was estimated by the Associated Press at almost half-a-million people.

The demonstrators, mainly Shi’ites joined by a few Druze, burned U.S. and Israeli flags and waved signs demanding that the United States stop interfering in Lebanese affairs.

Placards also accused Israel of being responsible for U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559, which calls for the withdrawal of foreign forces from Lebanon and the disarming of militias in the country ” a clear reference to Hezbollah.

Israeli officials have maintained a tactful silence as international pressure has built for Syria to comply with the resolution, mindful that their support for that or the nascent anti-Syrian opposition in Lebanon could backfire.

Christian Phalangists, an important element in the opposition movement, are already being labeled as potential turncoats because they signed an ill-fated peace treaty with Israel while Lebanon was under Israeli occupation in 1983.

The opposition was further damaged when an Israeli newspaper reported recently that members of the opposition were in talks with Israeli officials.

Israeli officials also worry about being provoked into a military clash with Hezbollah that Syria could use to postpone its promised pullout.

Israeli army Chief of Staff Moshe Yaalon has warned that Syria could orchestrate such an incident at Shebaa Farms, a disputed border outpost that Israel retained when it withdrew from southern Lebanon five years ago.

“Then [the Syrians] will have an excuse to say, ‘Our presence is necessary to protect Lebanon’s independence,’” said Yuval Steinitz, chairman of the foreign affairs and defense committee of the Israeli parliament. “This will be accepted in the Arab world.”

Lebanon is not the only place where Israel is finding the Arab embrace of democracy to be a mixed blessing.

The Palestinian armed movement Hamas, responsible for most of the terror attacks on Israelis over the past four years, announced over the weekend that it would contest Palestinian parliamentary elections in May. The group hopes to duplicate its recent successes in municipal elections.

At least nine persons were injured yesterday when supporters of the mainstream Palestinian movement Fatah disrupted a large Hamas rally for student council elections at Hebron University.

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