AOL News Thursday, October 14th
Matthew Kalman ContributorAOL News
"The world should know that eventually the Zionists will be forced to go and will not last long. They are enemies of humanity and will have no choice but to surrender. Occupied Palestine will be liberated from the yoke of the occupation with the help of resistance and faith in resistance," Ahmadinejad told an ecstatic crowd at the same soccer stadium where Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah gave his victory speech after the war of 2006, which saw the town largely reduced to rubble.
"The Zionists will have to leave and return to the countries they came from," he said, taking a moment to inform his audience that "the Zionists are responsible for the economic crisis and air pollution in the world."
In Maroun al-Ras, a village that saw heavy fighting in 2006 just a few hundred yards from the Israeli border, Hezbollah had erected a large viewing platform decorated with flags and a huge portrait of the Iranian leader gazing toward Israel. But Ahmadinejad failed to show up there, much to the disappointment of Israeli villagers across the fence, who had waited patiently with binoculars on the opposite hilltops.
Nasrallah himself apparently remained in the bunker where he is said to have been hiding for most of the past four years in fear of Israeli assassination. He failed to emerge even for Ahmadinejad's rally in Beirut on Wednesday, which he addressed by video. But his remote-control influence over the fate of Lebanon in partnership with Ahmadinejad's Iran is in no doubt.
Hezbollah forces, armed and financed by Iran, control large swathes of the country, with their headquarters in the southern Beirut suburbs and missile batteries and underground command posts scattered throughout the south of the country. Nasrallah's party lost the 2009 Lebanese elections but was the most powerful voice in the makeup of the government headed by Prime Minister Saad Hariri.
Nasrallah and Ahmadinejad have both raised alarms over the pending conclusions of a U.N.-appointed investigation into the 2005 assassination of Hariri's father, Rafik, the former prime minister. If it finds that Hezbollah agents were involved, as many observers suggest it will, the two warn that Lebanon will be plunged back into civil war.
Israeli leaders have no doubts about the intentions of the man who has hoped aloud on many occasions that their country will disappear from the world's maps. One right-wing opposition Israeli MP said Ahmadinejad should be assassinated, comparing the opportunity should it arise to killing Adolf Hitler before World War II. Israelis view the Iranian president's military support for Hezbollah and blood-curdling rhetoric as clear signals that he intends to continue using southern Lebanon as a launchpad for his ongoing battle against Israel.
"The Iranian president invested a fortune in Lebanon. However, his millions were not invested in education or welfare for the residents of Lebanon, but in arming Hezbollah and bolstering Nasrallah's rule in Lebanon," Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai said.
"Make no mistake. Most of the residents we see on TV did not come to greet Ahmadinejad out of love; they were forced to do so, because those are the rules of Ahmadinejad's game; he came to promote his interests at the expense of the Lebanese citizens," he said.
That view was echoed by Diana Nemeh, a Beirut-based commentator who has sharply criticized the visit.
"He's not interested in Lebanon's interests. He's just interested in Hezbollah and being against Israel and the U.S.," Nemeh told AOL News. "It's a bit shocking to me the way it's being portrayed on TV. It makes it look as though all of Lebanon, all the Lebanese people are welcoming his visit, which is not true at all. The other people that welcomed him, that really wanted him here, the Hezbollah and the Shia, he basically paid his way into their lives. He gave money in 2006 to rebuild after the war. Nothing's for free. He bought the right to say the south of Lebanon is Iran's border with Israel."
Iranian analyst Meir Javedanfar, director of Meepas analysts and co-author of "The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran," said Ahmadinejad's aim was to reverse his increasing unpopularity at home and send a signal to his enemies abroad.
"By going to a country where the Islamic Republic is genuinely popular, Ahmadinejad 's main goal from this visit is to boost his flagging image and influence," Javedanfar told AOL News. "He also wants to send a message of warning to anyone who is thinking of taking Hezbollah on, if the organization is found guilty of killing Hariri, and finally to send a message to Israel that Iran is on its border. Should Israel attack Iran's nuclear facilities, Iran could retaliate from much closer by."