Waiting game

The BBC has this report on Hezbollah, which I predict will be studiously ignored, just as if it had never been uttered.

The leader of Lebanon's Islamist Hezbollah movement, Hassan Nasrallah, has said his group will never recognise Israel's right to exist.

He was responding to a US suggestion that both Hezbollah and the Palestinian faction Hamas should recognise Israel before expecting any US engagement.

"We reject the American conditions," he said. "As long as Hezbollah exists, it will never recognise Israel."

So will the US talk to it? My guess is that it eventually, it will. Recently, "Economic Recovery Adviser Paul A. Volcker and nine former senior American officials have urged President Barack Obama to engage in dialogue with Hamas leaders." So it is quite clear that an unflagging intention to destroy Israel doesn't constitute an insurmountable barrier. So far, the administration has been reluctant to talk to Hezbollah. But I don't know whether it will hold the line for long. Nasrallah has two trump cards which have been handed to him entirely for nothing. The first is the almost certain knowledge that the US has taken regime change in Damascus or Teheran completely off the table. This means that, whatever its objections, Washington has guaranteed Hezbollah's strategic existence. "As long as Hezbollah exists, it will never recognize Israel," Nasrallah said. Well Hezbollah will exist for a long time; so declaring a determination to exterminate Israel is something that he can safely say because it carries no penalty from Washington.

The second trump card is that Hassan Nasrallah -- if given the signal by Damascus and Teheran -- can plunge the region into war. That is something that terrifies Lebanon and is not viewed with relish by Israel. The BBC reported late last year that "Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak has said the Lebanese Hezbollah movement now has three times as many missiles as before the 2006 Lebanon war. Mr Barak told MPs some of its 42,000 missiles could reach the southern towns of Ashkelon, Beersheba and Dimona, more than 200km (125 miles) from the border." As a state within a state and with more missiles than the Lebanese government, decision whether or not to go to war with Israel does not rest with Beirut. It lies with the Syrian and Iranian-backed Nasrallah. Will they be able to avoid buttering up to him? My guess is no.

With these two cards in hand, Nasrallah can be reasonably sure that both London and Washington, having painted themselves into a corner, will sooner or later come, tail between their legs, to his door. There will be political cover; perhaps some fig leaf to cover the abjectness of it all; but the basic position is this: if Nasrallah believes neither Obama nor Brown are willing to cross him, he will spit in their face and know they will take it.

My guess? The Bearded One will get away with it. And oh, about Hezbollah's pledge to destroy Israel? He never said it, and if he said it the sophisticates will never believe it; and even if they believe it they won't consider that it matters. What matters is the illusion of the peace process. That must be kept going at all events. Even if Hezbollah declares itself out, they will always find a way to deal it in.