Donald Macintyre: Why Ahmadinejad's enemies refused to dignify his antics with a response

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The far right-wing backbench Knesset member Aryeh Eldad said the visit was a good opportunity to assassinate the Iranian President – an act he suggested would be like "assassinating Hitler in 1939". He added: "The state of Israel, which was founded so that the Jewish people would always be responsible for its own fate and never again face the danger of extermination, is today in a position to assassinate, in southern Lebanon, the man who delegitimizes our very existence and threatens to annihilate us."

But in a country where extravagant rhetoric is often a norm, most senior politicians avoided, for yesterday, personalised attacks on the Iranian leader, with Israeli officials explaining that the government did not want to "play into his hands" or detract from criticism of the visit in the Arab world, including from Sunni groups in Lebanon.

Instead they largely united behind a message that the visit underlined what Israel has long been saying to Western governments, summed up in an official response by Mark Regev, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyhau's spokesman: "Iran's domination of Lebanon, through its proxy Hizbollah, has prevented Lebanon from being a partner in peace and turned Lebanon into an Iranian satellite and a hub of regional terror and instability."

Ehud Barak, the defence minister, added that the visit showed that Lebanon had "become a tool in the hands of other entities" and that Israel's military and its intelligence agencies were keeping their "eyes open".

His close associate Amos Gilad, head of the Israeli Defense Ministry's military-political branch, went somewhat further, saying that Hizbollah was "an entity which is eating Lebanon like cancer eats the body" and that it was a "tragedy" that Lebanon's leadership was allowing "a man who is not Arab and an extremist leader to destroy Lebanon from the inside".

Mr Gilad said the visit "illustrates the Iranian trend to take control over southern Lebanon especially", adding: "It is very important to prevent that."

Israel was widely reported as having sent diplomatic messages over the past days through the US, other Western governments and the UN to the Lebanese government urging it to prevent potential "provocations" close to its northern border.

Ami Dahan, one resident of Moshav Avivim, on the Lebanon border, referred to reports—subsequently denied-- that the Iranian president had planned to approach the border fence and throw stones. “For every stone he throws, we will build another home and plant a new tree, “ he told the Ynet newswire service. "Those who should be worried are the residents of south Lebanon. They suffered abuse at the hands of the Syrian regime for 40 years, and now they may fall victim to the abuse of an extremist Iranian regime. When looking over the fence you don't see symbols of an independent Lebanese state, but flags of Hizbollah and Iran, which are tightening their grip on the south of the country"