Ahmadinejad's Lebanon visit sparks fears in Israel

October 7, 2010
The Iranian and Syrian presidents meet in Damascus earlier this week

The Iranian and Syrian presidents meet in Damascus earlier this week

The Israeli government is worried that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's visit to Lebanon next week could signal the start of an escalation on its northern border.

Mr Ahmadinejad is scheduled to arrive on October 13 for a two-day visit. His itinerary includes a tour of towns and villages in the south of Lebanon where heavy fighting took place between the IDF and Hizbollah during the Second Lebanon War in 2006. According to some reports, the Iranian president may even take part in symbolic stone-throwing towards Israeli soldiers on the border.

Senior Israeli officials have tried to pressure the Lebanese government through the American and French foreign ministries and through UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to prevent or limit the visit. Following Mr Ahmadinejad's speech to the UN General Assembly two weeks ago in which he accused the Americans of orchestrating the 9/11 attacks, there is a greater feeling that the Obama administration will lean on its Lebanese counterparts to minimise the visit.

In a speech this week, commander of IDF Intelligence Branch Major General Amos Yadlin said that Iran is "a never-ending source of radical ideology, terror funding, weapons and tactics that are distributed to all of Israel's enemies".

He said that Iran provides $1 billion of funding annually to Hizbollah.

Since the end of the 2006 war, Hizbollah has not participated in any direct attacks on the border with Israel and has concentrated instead on building its military infrastructure, including tens of thousands of missiles it has received from Iran and Syria.

The visit is taking place at a crucial time in Lebanese politics. The UN tribunal investigating the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri is expected to deliver its conclusions, accusing Hizbollah operatives of being involved in the murder, in the near future.

Hizbollah and its Syrian allies have warned repeatedly over recent months that the tribunal's verdict will lead to a renewed round of violence in the country and jeopardise the uneasy truce between the various parties and groups in the country. Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri is walking a precarious path between maintaining alliances with Western nations - especially the US, which has been funding the Lebanese Army in the hope that it will prove to be a force for moderation and unity - and the demands of Hizbollah and other pro-Syrian and Iranian elements in the Lebanese power structure.

Syria was forced to pull its troops back from Lebanon following the Hariri assassination but along with Iran, it has been working hard to maintain its influence in Lebanon.

In the army, a growing number of units have forged allegiances with Hizbollah. The incident two months ago in which Lebanese soldiers opened fire on an Israeli command post, killing an officer, was seen as a strong signal of Hizbollah's influence.

As tension is rising within the Iranian regime over the threat to its nuclear programme, there is growing concern in Israel that the hour when Iran chooses to use its Lebanese proxy may be growing closer and that Mr Ahmadinejad's visit may be the harbinger.

Last updated: 4:23pm, October 7 2010