‘Known Unknowns’ of Mugniyah Killing

By Ramzy Baroud

We know well who killed top Hezbollah commander Imad Mugniyah on February 12 in Damascus.

Although in the US media only journalists like Seymour Hersh have the nerve to point out the obvious, the Israeli media has not shied away from evidence of Israeli intelligence’s involvement in this well-calculated assassination.

The major Israeli daily newspaper Maariv shared the views of many others when it concluded that: "Officially, Israel yesterday denied responsibility for the killing. But experts say the brilliant execution of the attack was characteristic of the Mossad."

The Financial Times reported on the "triumphant mood" of the Israeli press which hailed "the demise of one the country’s most feared adversaries" and quoted an Israeli paper stating "the account is settled".

The Financial Times also quoted a most telling analysis offered by one Israeli commentator: "Mugniyah’s assassination is perhaps the hardest blow Hezbollah has taken to this day. Not just because of his operational abilities, his close ties to the Iranians, and the series of successful terror attacks that he carried out. But because he was a symbol, a legend, a myth."

Donald Rumsfeld is no longer in public eye but his "wisdom" lives on. "We also know there are known unknowns," he once told perplexed reporters. Precisely, the "known unknown" in this case is that the Israeli Mossad killed Mugniyah, and killed him for specific political reasons at a well-chosen time and place that would make perfect sense from the Israeli government’s point of view.

Let’s first look at the timing.

President George W Bush’s second term in office will expire in one year. For the president who has unconditionally rubber-stamped Israeli policies, one year is not enough to set long-term goals, but it’s enough to ignite chaos.

"If you want chaos, then we welcome chaos. If you want war, then we welcome war. We have no problem with weapons or with rockets which we will launch on you." These were the words of Lebanon’s MP Walid Jumblatt of the ruling March 14 Coalition, directed at the Hezbollah-led opposition a few days prior to the third anniversary of Rafiq Hariri’s assassination. Considering the military strength of Hezbollah within Lebanon, it isn’t difficult to guess where the MP’s rockets would come from.

Indeed, the internal disunity and open hostility – notwithstanding the political impasse over the future of the country’s parliamentary and governmental organization – all point at the readiness of Lebanon to descend into chaos. This is good news for Israel and the Bush administration. A civil war could achieve what Israel’s botched, illegal war of 2006 could not.

The 34-day war, celebrated by Hezbollah as a victory, was a massive setback to Israel’s regional designs and to those who wanted Hezbollah removed from the country’s political equation. The war backfired, achieving the exact opposite: Hezbollah emerged triumphant. More recently, Israel’s own investigation into the war admitted, if somewhat circuitously, Israel’s defeat.

The Winograd Commission’s report indicted the army, and largely absolved Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. It described the war’s failure as a "serious missed opportunity". The report didn’t chastise the war, but decried its lack of effectiveness and poor execution.

How could Olmert correct the mistakes of the war without waging another? And what better timing for war than a moment when Hezbollah and its rivals in Lebanon are engaged in one of their own?

But the assassination of a high-profile person like Mugniyah was not merely an opportunity to boast over a classic Mossad operation. It was a major ingredient in a larger scheme, the end result of which may be war with both Lebanon and Syria – with the hope of getting Iran involved.

Israel didn’t hide its disappointment over the US’s National Intelligence Estimate, which concluded that Iran is no longer in the nuclear weapons manufacturing business. It simply meant that the US will not attack Iran at this time. But for Israel, "absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence" – another Rumsfeld quote. Fearing that unchecked Iran could dominate the region, Israel, with Bush’s green light, is now ready for escalation.

Israeli officials and pundits – and their friends in the US government and media – are building a case for a confrontation with Iran. On a recent trip to Germany, after talks with Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin, Olmert was "sure" of Iran developing nuclear weapons. "The Iranians are moving forward with their plans to create a capacity for non-conventional weapons," he told reporters.

Israel, however, is neither capable, nor willing to face Iran in a conventional war.

But going after Hezbollah as they have done unsuccessfully in the past could be disastrous. Thus there is a need for a new tactic. Last September, Israel experimented, once again, with the idea of bombing Syria. US media parroted ridiculous claims that the bombings targeted "secret" Syrian nuclear facilities, courtesy of North Korea. What Israel wants is an easy victory over Syria, which will block Iranian military supplies to Hezbollah, and deny Palestinian opposition parties a save heaven in Damascus, the last Arab capital willing to provide them with a political platform. Facing an internal challenge at home and without Iran’s help, Hezbollah cannot withstand a fight on two fronts.

For Israel’s scheme to succeed, the internal conflict in Lebanon must escalate and internal cohesion must not be achieved, a mission entrusted to the "mysterious" car bombings that have been blamed squarely on Syria and its Lebanese allies.

By gloating, yet without revealing much about the assassination of Mugniyah, Israeli commentators might have lost sight of the great gamble of their government. Hezbollah’s response, articulated by their leader Hassan Nasrallah, was a vow for an "open" war. The group will most likely avoid border clashes, and take the war against Israel to the international arena, just as Israel has. And like Israel, it may gloat in private but officially refrain from sponsoring whatever operations are carried out.

The course of future events is now more predictable, although whether such tit-for-tat behavior will work in Israel’s favor remains in the realm of "unknown unknowns". Maybe Rumsfeld had it right after all.

-Ramzy Baroud (www.ramzybaroud.net) is an author and editor of PalestineChronicle.com. His work has been published in many newspapers and journals worldwide. His latest book is The Second Palestinian Intifada: A Chronicle of a People’s Struggle (Pluto Press, London).

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