News Analysis: Hezbollah could sway Israel vote from Peres

JERUSALEM — As Israel's election campaign heats up, the threat of Arab terrorism hangs over the electoral process like never before.

Indeed, some observers say it may actually determine who will become the Jewish state's next premier.

Most eyes now are focused on Hamas and the smaller militant group Islamic Jihad as having the power to influence who wins the May 29 Israeli elections.

Indeed, after the suicide bombings in February and March, public opinion surveys showed the gap between Prime Minister Shimon Peres and Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu narrowing.

But now tensions flaring in southern Lebanon between the Iranian-backed Hezbollah movement and Israel threaten to sway Israeli voting.

Hezbollah has launched repeated Katyusha rocket assaults, sending residents of the Jewish state's northern communities scurrying for shelter.

Sixteen rockets landed in Kiryat Shmona and Nahariya Monday, wounding 13 residents a week after a barrage of Katyushas hit northern Israel. Tuesday, 30 Katyushas hit the western Galilee and Galilee panhandle, damaging more than 200 homes, causing $750,000 in damage and injuring 26 people, including one 16-year-old girl seriously. Wednesday, a 20-year-old Israeli soldier was killed in an ambush in southern Lebanon, sparking Israeli air and artillery attacks on Hezbollah positions.

Public pressure built in Israel for a full-scale war on Hezbollah, and Kiryat Shmona residents demonstrated by burning tires in the streets.

"We are living in a war zone," said Prosper Azran, mayor of Kiryat Shmona, the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation's partnership town. "The government has not done enough to come through with promised and needed aid."

The Hezbollah attacks, along with threats by Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah after the March 30 assault for residents in northern Israel to "stay in their shelters," reflected the group's bravado.

They also indicated that the militant fundamentalist group has decided to no longer honor the 1993 U.S.-brokered understanding with Israel under which Hezbollah committed not to launch Katyushas at the Galilee.

In Israel's nine-mile-wide "security zone" in southern Lebanon, Hezbollah's almost daily attacks against the Israel Defense Force and Israeli-backed South Lebanese Army have become more daring and deadly.

For example, a Hezbollah suicide bomber rushed the leading car of an Israeli army convoy March 20, killing an Israeli officer — the sixth Israeli soldier to be killed in southern Lebanon in three weeks.

True, Hezbollah's main goal is to get Israeli forces out of Lebanon. But it also seeks to swing Israel's election in favor of the right-wing Likud Party — a development Hezbollah officials believe will hasten the collapse of the peace process.

In fact, after Kiryat Shmona residents protested the government's failure to curb Hezbollah, Peres avoided the city on a tour of the north Wednesday. But Netanyahu was warmly welcomed there.

Hezbollah also acts with Tehren's full blessing. Israeli security experts think Ali Falahian, the head of the Iranian intelligence service, is behind the recent Hezbollah offensive.

Falahian, who is convinced a Likud victory will lead to the collapse of the peace process, is the strongest supporter of Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu in the Islamic world.

Meanwhile, Syria also has given its blessings to Hezbollah's operations.

Syria may not give the signal for each Katyusha attack, but few in Israel doubt that Damascus has the power to stop the Hezbollah assaults.

And supply lines to Hezbollah run from Iran — via Damascus — to the Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon, a territory under strict Syrian control.

Syrian President Hafez Assad has internal reasons for backing Hezbollah at the present time.

When the peace talks with Israel were going well, the Syrian media mentioned Israel by name and Assad reined in Hezbollah. But now that the peace talks are stalled, Israel once again has become the "Zionist entity" in the Syrian media, and Damascus has given the fundamentalist group the go-ahead to continue its operations.

As long as Hezbollah has the backing of Damascus and Tehran, it is likely to continue to press Israel in southern Lebanon and, possibly, within the Galilee. In fact, Nasrallah vowed last month that that is exactly what Hezbollah will do.

Israeli forces went into Lebanon in 1982 to fight the Palestine Liberation Organization. Segments of the Lebanese population regarded Israel then as a potential ally, and that view was shared by many Shiites who disliked the Palestinians no less than the Israelis did.

But when Israeli forces remained in Lebanon longer than expected, they were regarded by the local population as occupiers — and it became Hezbollah's political and religious mission to throw them out.

Hezbollah emerged in 1982 as a local product of Iranian Revolutionary Guards stationed in the Bekaa Valley. Today, Hezbollah is not only a militant group but a legitimate political actor, enjoying representation in Lebanon's parliament.

With Katyushas in hand, Hezbollah may hold northern Israel hostage until its main goal of an Israeli withdrawal is achieved.

The Katyushas can be launched from any truck, which can easily be moved from one hiding place to another. They have a range of about 13 miles, which covers most of the northern Galilee.

Peres, in the meantime, faces a lose-lose situation in dealing with Hezbollah.

No Israeli adventure in Lebanon has ever ended as a clear-cut gain. A military strike in Lebanon could end up as a fiasco, costing Peres at the voting booth.

In addition, if Peres orders a wide-ranging strike, tens of thousands of civilians in southern Lebanon would flee to the north as they did in July 1993, and their plight would once again turn world opinion against Israel.

But if Peres sits back and lets the United States exert its influence to win a measure of peace — as happened after the March 30 Katyusha assault — Peres also could lose points with Israel's voters.

Some Israeli officials have urged Peres to pursue a third option: to admit once and for all that there is no point in remaining in Lebanon any longer.

Columnist Ofer Shelah wrote in the Israeli daily Ma'ariv last weekend that Israel should learn a lesson from the American experience in Vietnam and realize that there is no point fighting a war without a definite objective.

"We have good soldiers and sophisticated technical means, but we have no clear-cut goal, courage and endurance," Shelah wrote.

Just the same, no Israeli government is likely to order a unilateral pullout of Lebanon — certainly not at election time.

Yet with Hezbollah raining missiles on northern Israel during the Passover holiday as many people vacationed in the area, Israeli hesitation to strike a major blow against Hezbollah appeared to be wearing thin.