THE PURPOSE and the timing of Hezbollah's attack on Israel yesterday should be transparent to all concerned. Hezbollah's rocket attacks into northern Israel and the group's capture of two Israeli soldiers during an ambush inside Israeli territory have been presented by Hezbollah as a military action in solidarity with Hamas and Palestinians suffering under Israeli assaults in Gaza. Hezbollah says its aim is to force Israel to release Palestinian and Hezbollah detainees in exchange for the two soldiers held in Lebanon and the one still held in Gaza.
But it is an open secret throughout the region that the Lebanese Shi'ite movement Hezbollah functions as an extension of the theocratic regime that rules Iran.
The timing of the Hezbollah action could not be more revealing. Hezbollah commandos crossed into Israel on the same day that Iran was supposed to give its answer to the package of incentives that the five permanent Security Council members plus Germany offered to Iran if it will suspend uranium enrichment and enter negotiations to bring it into compliance with the International Atomic Energy Agency. Because no answer was forthcoming from Tehran, yesterday was also the day that the five permanent Security Council members expressed ``profound disappointment" at Iran's refusal to respond, and said they ``have no choice but to return to the United Nations Security Council" to consider possible sanctions against Iran.
Hezbollah's attack on Israel serves not only to distract from Iran's defiance of the international community. It also plays into a propaganda campaign that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran has conducted in recent months, conflating the issue of Iran's nuclear program with what he has condemned as the intolerable existence of Israel. Also, by having Hezbollah strike now at Israel, the Iranian regime clearly means to neutralize Arab regimes that are fearful of Iran's spreading influence in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.
President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt had just disclosed publicly that he had worked out a prisoner swap with Israel and Hamas, but that ``other parties" he would not name forced Hamas to sabotage the deal. It can be assumed that Syria and Iran are the other parties, the two countries having signed a military cooperation agreement last month that Syria's defense minister described as establishing ``a joint front against Israel."
Knowing that Iran is behind Hezbollah's act of war, Israeli leaders -- who are openly warning of devastating strikes on Lebanon's infrastructure -- would be well advised to avoid a reflexive military response that lands Israel in an Iranian trap. If the regime in Tehran wants to provoke Israel to bomb Lebanese power plants, roads, and bridges, maybe this kind of military retaliation is not such a good idea.