Everywhere in the Middle East these days, people are muttering about the possibility of war: between Israel and Hamas, or Israel and Hezbollah, or Israel and Syria, or among bickering Lebanese factions. Or maybe this war will involve everyone.
What might set off such a catastrophic conflict? Maybe it starts with Israeli soldiers trying to trim a tree.
That's exactly what happened on Tuesday, when Lebanese troops fired on Israeli forces who were pruning a tree along the border between the two countries. That set off a series of skirmishes that killed two Lebanese soldiers, a Lebanese journalist and an Israeli commander.
This clash, the most serious in four years, underscores why Lebanon's southern frontier with Israel is the most volatile border in the Middle East today, and how easily a confrontation could spiral out of control. Western policymakers must not shift their attention away from Lebanon, a small country that has long been the staging ground of proxy wars in the region.
The latest fighting did not involve Hezbollah, the Shiite political party and militia that has fought Israel for decades. But Hezbollah remains a central player in the dangerous drama that is unfolding along the Lebanese-Israeli border. When a pro-American coalition won Lebanon's parliamentary elections last year, a seductive conventional wisdom emerged in the West: Because Hezbollah and its allies were defeated at the polls, the group would lose some of its luster and a U.S.-backed government would rule Lebanon. In fact, Hezbollah remains the country's dominant military and political force. It holds the key to both domestic and external stability, and its actions will help determine whether there is another war with Israel, or if Lebanon will once again be wracked by internal conflict.