x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Defiant Hizbollah greets likely win as impetus for conflict

Hizbollah and its supporters are hailing the apparent victory of a right-wing coalition in this week's Israeli elections as a catalyst for further conflict.

BEIRUT // Hizbollah and its supporters are hailing the apparent victory of a right-wing coalition in this week's Israeli elections as a catalyst for further conflict. Although the Likud Party's Benjamin Netanyahu remains in talks to form a coalition government to lead Israel - in case Shimon Peres, the president, should ask him to head the next government - the strong showing by his party and its potential coalition partners means that any ruling coalition will likely take a much tougher stance in both peace talks and military action against Israel's neighbours.

In the wake of the summer 2006 war between Hizbollah and Israel that was widely seen as a setback for the Israeli military when it was unable to halt rocket-fire from south Lebanon, Hizbollah has rearmed and shown increasing levels of bravado in antagonising its southern rival. In response to such boasts, Israeli officials have often used the campaign to imply that Hizbollah's official role in the Lebanese government now makes any Lebanese government target legitimate.

"We used to think some Israeli leaders were better than others," said Ahmad Nasr, a 30-year-old Hizbollah supporter. "But after they killed 1,300 ? in Gaza as part of an election campaign, we now think whoever kills the most Arabs gets to lead Israel. "After 2006, they wanted an extreme right government who they think can defeat Hizbollah, but I am happy they think this way. That's what we want, crazy Netanyahu who thinks he can defeat us. We will show him, so let's hope he does something stupid."

Inside the secretive group itself, Hizbollah commanders said that while it does not necessarily matter who leads Israel in the long-term, they expect Mr Netanyahu to take extreme positions that will benefit the group's stance on violent resistance. "If we win the elections later this year - and we will win them - then expect major problems with Bibi," said one commander, using Mr Netanyahu's nickname. "He will oppose peace talks with Syria and will do things that will benefit the resistance, God willing."

Assad Ishmail, 29, points to Mr Netanyahu's recent promises to crush both Hizbollah and Hamas if elected as a positive step that will show the world Israel's true nature."He promised, so let's go!" Mr Ishmail said. "Let's see what he has for us and we will show him that the resistance are not cowards." A friend of Mr Ishmail's agreed. "I personally wanted Netanyahu to win because he's stupid enough to start a war with Hizbollah," Moustafa Sahli said.

This antagonism bordering on overconfidence that another Hizbollah-Israeli confrontation will benefit Lebanon and Hizbollah is naive, according to Timur Goksel, former United Nations official and Hizbollah expert. "When these boys say they want Bibi because it will help start a war, they are being emotional or even overly romantic," he said. "In Israel, foreign policy as it relates to its neighbours is decided - and has always been decided - by the army."

"Political changes do not control changes on the ground or in reality," he added. "Certainly, Bibi will take a hard stance in negotiations and there's always a chance something could happen that could escalate, but if someone starts something, the calculus used by both sides will be about the human and political cost to their people. That never changes with a government." mprothero@thenational.ae