JERUSALEM – Israel will hold Lebanon responsible for any future Hezbollah attack should the Iranian- and Syrian-backed militia be brought into Beirut's incoming government, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday.
Though U.S.-backed Lebanese Prime Minister-designate Saad al-Hariri bested Hezbollah in a June ballot, he is holding talks on a new coalition expected to include the Shi'ite group and its allies. Hezbollah has a minister in the outgoing cabinet.
Israel fought Hezbollah in its southern Lebanese bastions in a 2006 war but has accused the guerrillas of rearming under the noses of U.N. peacekeepers and plotting attacks on Israelis to avenge the assassination of a top militia leader last year.
Some analysts believe that Israel, which has hinted it could attack arch-foe Iran's nuclear facilities, also wants to blunt Hezbollah's ability to serve as a retaliatory arm of Tehran.
If Hezbollah joins the Lebanese government as an official entity, let it be clear that the Lebanese government, as far as we are concerned, is responsible for any attack -- any attack -- from its area on the state of Israel, Netanyahu told reporters.
It cannot hide and say: 'It's Hezbollah, we don't control them.'
Triggered by Hezbollah's capture of two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid, the 2006 summer war exacted a heavy toll on Lebanese infrastructure. Some 1,200 people in Lebanon, mostly civilians, and 158 Israelis, mostly soldiers, were killed.
Israel credits the offensive with keeping the border largely quiet since, but Hezbollah has said it is ready to fight again and is determined to hit back for the February 12, 2008 killing of its military mastermind, Imad Moughniyeh, in a Damascus car-bombing.
Israel denied involvement in that slaying, and has warned that Hezbollah and Lebanon would bear the consequences for any reprisals against Israelis abroad.
Netanyahu's threat followed similar comments by the Israeli defense minister and deputy foreign minister in recent days. The spiraling rhetoric has stirred speculation on both sides of the frontier that a fresh conflict could be in the making.
Senior Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hashim Safieddin said on Sunday that if Israel attacked Lebanon again, the group's response would make the 2006 war seem like a joke, Lebanese media reported.
Underlining the point Monday, deputy Hezbollah leader Sheikh Naim Kassem said Israel would face a heavy price if it attacked. They know that we now are in a better position (than before) and in an excellent state of readiness, he told the group's al-Manar television station.
Asked about Netanyahu's remarks, Deputy Israeli Prime Minister Dan Meridor said they were intended to preserve the quiet through deterrence. But he also made clear that Israel regards its neighbor as a potential Iranian proxy.
Hezbollah is a terror organization that has become a semi-army. Basically, it is a branch of Iran on our northern border, with Syria's consent and with Lebanon's consent. This is not a healthy phenomenon, Meridor told Israel Radio.
Assumed to have the Middle East's only atomic arsenal, Israel has questioned the efficacy of U.S.-led efforts to curb Iran's nuclear program through diplomacy. Iran denies seeking the bomb but has stoked regional jitters with virulently anti-Israel statements and support for Hezbollah and Palestinian Islamist militants similarly arrayed against the Jewish state.
(Additional reporting by Tom Perry in Beirut; Editing by Charles Dick)