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Middle East

Hezbollah and Iran are making Israel appear isolated and divided

Diplomatic Channels: Gen Gantz was making the point that Hezbollah remains the biggest threat to Israel and it has likely improved its capabilities since 2006

Hezbollah has more lethal firepower than all except the most major countries in the world, declared Lieutenant General Benny Gantz, the chief of staff of the Israeli army. “Show me four or five states with more firepower than Hezbollah: the US, China, Russia, Israel, France, the UK”, he said.

The chief of staff of the Israeli military has reason to be wary of the power of Hezbollah. He was a senior commander in 2006 when the Lebanese militia fought a bitter campaign against the Israelis. More recently the Shia fighters have been carrying out a successful campaign on behalf of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in the Syrian civil war.

However elevating Hezbollah to the level of nuclear-armed Security Council members is fanciful. Perhaps the General meant they were pre-eminent in the region; although Turkey and Egypt will take issue with his view about the capabilities of their forces. And straying beyond the neighbourhood  one has the massive militaries of China and India, to name just two.

Nevertheless, Gen Gantz was making the point that Hezbollah remains the biggest threat to Israel and it has likely improved its capabilities since 2006, particularly as a result of its Syrian experience. “The bad news from our point of view, is that while Hezbollah is fighting on three fronts... it is also amassing experience which we will one day face,” he said.

The Syrian civil war will last at least ten years, Gen Gantz believes, while Hamas, and Hezbollah, stock up with weapons and remain determined enemies across Israel’s borders.

Behind Hezbollah, lurks Iran, the ‘existential threat’ to the Jewish state as prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli officials repeatedly stress. “It has not given up on its nuclear vision… And  it is important to prevent [acquisition] of this capability, whether by force or without it”, said Gen Gantz.

All the indications the General had given, however, were that he would rather see this done without the use of force. The Commander had stressed that sanctions were working. He had in the past contradicted Mr Netanyahu - who at the time was loudly beating the drum for war - about the timescale of Iran acquiring a nuclear arsenal; on Monday he pointed out the Terhran government faces its own internal tensions and divisions on whether to get the Bomb.

Meanwhile, the US and Iran began bilateral talks with Iran on the issue, the first such direct face to face talks between the two counties for decades with a high-powered team coming from Washington led by Deputy Secretary William Burns and Jake Sullivan, a White House advisor, who had been involved in the past with months of secret talks which brought Iran to the negotiating table next year.

At Herzliya, Yuval Steinitz, the minister of intelligence wanted to stress that the Israeli government had been kept informed about the talks, and then went on to paint an apoplectic scene of a nuclear armed Iran with hundreds of missiles capable of reaching western Europe and the east coast. “This is not just about the future of Israel, or the Middle East”, but the future of the world”, he warned. There would be uncontrollable proliferation, he went on, with Sunni states, like Saudi Arabia and Turkey trying to match their Shia adversary.

Mr Steinitz quoted Barack Obama on the rules of diplomatic negotiations, that “no deal is better than a bad deal” and repeated the phrase several times. An agreement leaving Tehran on the nuclear threshold would be pointless as it will use the reprieve to weaponise, like North Korea, insisted the minister, while the world’s attention may be diverted by another crisis.

Iran, said Mr Steinitz, must make real concessions; Israel was against talks continuing beyond next month if this was not achieved. But what comes next in the “no deal better than bad deal” scenario?

Continuing sanctions or military strikes? Israel could, as ministers have claimed, go it alone with the latter without the US. But there seems to be little appetite for that. Last week Gen Gantz and defence minister Moshe Ya’alon announced that the Summer’s ‘Home Front Drill’, to prepare the population for enemy missile attack, was being cancelled. This was due, they said, to lack of funds; but the decision was widely viewed as an indication that there will no Iran action in the near future.

There is also general consensus here that the US and the West are in no mood to start another conflict with what has been unfolding in Ukraine and the ongoing bloody strife in Syria. Indeed, Mr Netanyahu appears to have given up on Mr Obama, especially after Washington ignored Israeli calls to boycott  the new Palestinian government with Hamas joining Fatah.

In fact, the Israeli prime minister actually “loathes” Mr Obama, the head of the Israeli opposition as claimed. This revelation came in a bitter attack in which Isaac Herzog accused Mr Netanyahu of failing to listen to the international community; failing to present peace proposals of his own for an accord with the Palestinians, and failing to work with the Americans. “It was”, said Mr Herzog, who was once minister of welfare under Mr Netanyahu “a tragedy that endangers the security of Israel, his loathing and hostility for Barack Obama.”

While Israel looks at external threats, negotiations with the Palestinian leadership are going nowhere, with each side blaming the other. Israel has announced it will build hundreds of new housing units in the West Bank and East Jerusalem in retaliation for Hamas/Fatah deal. The Palestinians have threatened unspecified counter-measures but Hamas and Fatah have fallen out between themselves. Fatah civil servants received salaries, but not those of Hamas. Qatar, never out of the news for long nowadays, has stepped in to provide the missing pay.

A session on Sunday at Herzliya, was titled ‘Israeli Leaders Debate Peace’. But there was little by way of debate, what the speakers, four of whom were ministers, including Tzipi Livni,  the former prime minister, revealed was how deeply Mr Netanyahu’s coalition government is itself split on this, most fundamental of issues for the state of Israel.