Hizbollah and Israel make some cold calculations

The question is not whether Benjamin Netanyahu has the cash to win a war. It's whether he has the political capital to lose one and still remain in office.

Samir Kuntar was a Hizbollah hero. Nicole Hill / The National
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The retaliation was swift but measured – and Israel’s assassination of Hizbollah’s top fighter Samir Kuntar in Damascus just a couple of weeks ago was sure to have provoked one.

Yet Monday’s strike within Israel, hitting army vehicles, can hardly be called "payback" for Kuntar’s death.

It’s true that Hizbollah now has even more reason to consider Israel a greater enemy than ever before, particularly as the latter has an interest in backing anti-Assad forces in Syria.

But Hizbollah doesn’t really do swift revenge, preferring the calculated, cold version that arrives when the time is right. These smaller attacks are designed to show Israel that it has the capability to plant explosives.

Israel’s reply is equally deliberate and designed to not upset the peace which both sides need and enjoy: the Israel Defence Force immediately sent back a volley of rockets into a village in southern Lebanon with no fatalities, as expected.

It’s not just that Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, knows that he can’t win a war with Hizbollah, neither politically nor militarily. It’s more that the Israelis know Syria is all that matters. Last summer, Mr Netanyahu panicked when he realised that there must be a great many tunnels running into Israel from Hizbollah-controlled southern Lebanon, following a number of villagers reporting strange noises beneath their feet.

His threats were met with an immitigable response from Hizbollah’s leader who spoke of targeting Israeli cities with even more “precision” than ever before.

But if the Assad regime continues to cling to power indefinitely, which is by no means a certainty, then those rumblings might also one day come from another frontier.

Syria is the battleground that Israel has been obsessing over since September, when Russia arrived with troops and hardware and Mr Al Assad began to look like a winner again. Or at least a front-runner.

As Russia and Iran’s military campaign advances, the Israelis and others will take as many easy targets as they can.

Kuntar, the Hizbollah hero, was a Druze and, as such, could have played a role in convincing that community in Syria to stay loyal to Mr Al ­Assad – following reports last year that Israel was trying to win their hearts and minds.

Yet Hizbollah and its Iranian paymasters have other reasons to hit back at Israel.

Israel is an obvious target for Hizbollah because it knows, if attacked with measured, calculated strikes, that Mr Netanyahu is unlikely to retaliate with war.

He may recently have suspended contact with the EU over the issue of labelling Israeli settlement products, but the same kind of tough words would be wasted on the Lebanese movement which, contrary to the rhetoric that Israel spreads about it being cash-strapped, has deep pockets and reserves.

The question is not whether you have the cash to win a war, more whether you have the political capital to lose one and still remain in office.

Martin Jay is the founding editor of An Nahar English

On Twitter: @MartinRJay