Image Credit: Illustration: Ramachandra Babu/©Gulf News

As clouds of volcanic ash loom high over Europe, clouds of war are once again lurking over Lebanon. In recent days, Israel's President Shimon Peres has accused Syria of supplying Hezbollah with Scud ballistic missiles that can reach Israeli cities. Damascus has denied the charge while Hezbollah has refused to deny or confirm it, saying it's nobody's business. US officials remain doubtful due to an absence of proof. However, a spokesman for the US State Department has said his government is "increasingly concerned about the sophisticated weaponry that is allegedly being transferred."

Heightening tensions further, the Israeli military lit up southern Lebanon with flares last weekend and, according to Lebanese sources, has been violating Lebanese villages across the so-called Blue Line. It looks like Israel is itching for another fight.

This time, Hezbollah is an unlikely aggressor. Politically, it has everything to lose by igniting another conflict with Israel when the Lebanese are enjoying renewed prosperity and stability. It was Hezbollah's kidnapping of Israeli soldiers that triggered the 2006 conflict, robbing up to 1,500 Lebanese civilians of their lives, displacing one million others and turning villages into rubble.

Hezbollah's leader Hassan Nasrallah later admitted that he failed to foresee an all-out conflict when he ordered the taking of Israeli soldiers to be used as bargaining chips in his efforts to get Lebanese prisoners released from Israeli prisons. He took a lot of flack for that miscalculation within Lebanon and so it's doubtful he would make such a mistake again.

Hezbollah has positioned itself as Lebanon's defender, which is why it refuses to talk about relinquishing its weapons. Any war of aggression on its part would demolish that argument and bring heavy pressure upon the group to disarm. It would also weaken Hezbollah's hard-won clout and legitimacy within the Lebanese government. In any case, Nasrallah has little to prove following his military wing's successes in 2006 against one of the world's most powerful armies.

Pretext required

On the other hand, Israel's hardline, right-wing government could potentially gain from launching another attack on Lebanon — provided a viable pretext could be found or concocted. Israel cannot be seen to be belligerent. Any war would have to be sold to the Israeli public and the international community as necessary for Israel's defence. Hence, the hyping of Hezbollah's alleged stockpile of Scuds and Israel's provocative acts along the Lebanese border. Nasrallah has openly stated that he has 30,000 missiles at his disposal with the capacity to hit anywhere in Israel, so whether or not he has Scuds is besides the point.

Syria and Hezbollah both believe Israel's hysteria over the alleged delivery of Scuds is designed to focus world attention away from its nuclear programme, along with growing calls for Israel to sign-up to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

There are several reasons why Israel would benefit from renewed hostilities with its neighbour at this juncture.

First and foremost, if the Benjamin Netanyahu-led government is serious about striking Iran's nuclear facilities, Hezbollah must be dealt with first. Israel considers the organisation as Tehran's regional proxy and, indeed, last month, Hezbollah's Deputy Leader Naim Qasim warned that assailants would pay a heavy price for attacking Iran. Israel cannot risk conflict on two fronts simultaneously (perhaps three if Syria were to engage) or face a barrage of missiles so close to home while fending off retaliation from Iran.

Secondly, Israel considers the 2006 war as unfinished business having been forced out by the United Nations without a clear win. The only way it can reinstate the myth of its military invincibility is to return to the fray and ensure that next time it emerges with a definitive triumph.

Thirdly, conflict would thrust Washington back into Israel's corner and alleviate pressure being heaped on Israel to desist from expanding colonies and evicting Palestinians from their homes in occupied east Jerusalem to make way for new Jewish homes. US-Israel relations have rarely been as strained as they are now but that situation would alter dramatically were Israel to come under attack, at which time its disintegrating victim narrative would receive a much-needed boost. In that event, US President Barack Obama would have to put on hold any plans for an imposed peace settlement, leaving Netanyahu comfortably off the hook. Moreover, war could bolster Netanyahu's flagging popularity, elevating him from zero to hero with Israeli voters — depending, of course, on its outcome.

According to accounts from members of Congress who attended a meeting of the Congressional Friends of Jordan Caucus last month together with Jordan's King Abdullah II Bin Al Hussain, the monarch believes conflict between Israel and Lebanon is poised to break out "imminently". "There are sources in Lebanon that feel that war is inevitable," he told the Chicago Tribune just days ago. If he's right, it's time for Obama to prove his mettle. If anyone can put a stop to this, he can and he must. Israel must be reined in before Lebanon's peaceful slopes are stained red once again.

Linda S. Heard is a specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She can be contacted at lheard@gulfnews.com. Some of the comments may be considered for publication.