Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah leader, warned Israel not to “steal” Lebanon’s resources. Israel has vowed to protect the gas fields. Photographer: Wael Ladki/Bloomberg
Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah leader, warned Israel not to “steal” Lebanon’s resources. Israel has vowed to protect the gas fields. Photographer: Wael Ladki/Bloomberg

The chance of armed conflict between Israel and Hezbollah is increasing. Renewed hostilities would be disastrous for all involved, so the U.S. and its allies need to act now to prevent events from spinning out of control.

Energy companies say that large oil and gas reserves might lie off the Israeli and Lebanese coasts. The countries’ maritime border is undefined, and each nation says the possible energy deposits are within its exclusive economic zone. Hezbollah, the Lebanese terrorist group, may use this dispute as an excuse to provoke a conflict and reassert its claim to be the one Arab entity willing and able to confront Israel. In a July 26 speech, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah warned Israel not to “steal” Lebanon’s resources. Israel has vowed to protect the gas fields.

Hezbollah was founded in 1982 by the Iranian and Syrian intelligence services to serve as their proxy against Israel and the U.S., and to speak for Lebanon’s formerly marginalized Shiite community. In the West, it is best known for bombing the U.S. and French barracks in Beirut in October 1983, kidnapping Americans and Europeans in Lebanon during the 1980s, and attacking a Jewish community center in Argentina in 1994.

But it is also the dominant party in the Lebanese coalition government, giving Shiites an unprecedented amount of political power. Regionally, Hezbollah was seen, even by non-Shiites, as the resistance against Israel. Its popularity soared in 2000 when its military wing forced Israel to end its 18-year occupation of parts of southern Lebanon, and then again in 2006 when it fought Israel to a draw during a monthlong war. This gave Hezbollah a record of military success that was unique among Arab armies.

But Hezbollah has reasons to worry. Almost all of its sophisticated weapons, including the long- and medium-range missiles it uses to threaten Israel, enter Lebanon through Syria. Hezbollah is closely associated with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Although Hezbollah’s spokesman has denied that it helped Syria’s security services crack down on Assad’s opponents, some anti-government protesters have burned Hezbollah flags during demonstrations.

Hezbollah’s ties to Assad have made it look retrograde in the eyes of young Arabs who are at the forefront of the Arab Spring and who previously were most likely to admire Hezbollah’s willingness to “stand up” to the U.S. and Israel. Assad’s fall would be a disaster for Hezbollah, especially if a new Syrian government were dominated by the strongly anti-Shiite Muslim Brotherhood.

Hezbollah is also a victim of its own success. With Israel now out of Lebanese territory, there is no longer anything to resist, and many Lebanese question why Hezbollah has refused to disarm. And with its Shiite constituency enjoying an unprecedented degree of political influence and prosperity, they have more to lose if Hezbollah provokes a confrontation with Israel or Lebanon’s other confessional groups.

To add to Hezbollah’s troubles, the United Nations Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which is looking into the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, has indicted four members of Hezbollah. The terrorist group has refused to cooperate with the tribunal and won’t allow the Lebanese government to assist the investigation. The tribunal’s next step might be to try the four suspects in absentia, meaning that details of the assassination and Hezbollah’s alleged role, including any cooperation with the Syrian intelligence service, would be made public.

Under these circumstances, Hezbollah might conclude that a confrontation with Israel is the perfect way to divert attention from its ties to the Assad regime and Hariri’s murder. Tension with Israel could also serve Assad’s interests by taking the focus off the brutal crackdown on his opponents. Some Israeli leaders might see another round with Hezbollah as an opportunity to make up for the inconclusive end to the 2006 war. Even if neither Hezbollah nor Israel wants a full-scale conflict, there is the possibility that a cycle of Hezbollah provocations and Israeli military responses will escalate.

The last thing the U.S. and its allies want is another crisis that would strengthen Hezbollah and its Syrian and Iranian patrons, and further destabilize the Middle East. The UN is now examining each side’s claims on their maritime border and will arbitrate between them. We would welcome a speedy decision.

There are a number of other options. Although the U.S. and its European allies have very little leverage with Hezbollah, they should encourage those who do, such as Turkey, to warn against provoking Israel. Western officials should also make Lebanon, including Lebanese Shiites, aware that it would be the big loser if there is a worsening crisis. The U.S. should also try to dissuade Israel from falling into Hezbollah’s trap by overreacting to a provocation.

We understand why President Barack Obama and his European counterparts might be reluctant to get involved in Lebanon, but a little preventive diplomacy would be worth it.

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