Israel unlikely to retaliate after Bulgaria report

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel on Tuesday welcomed a Bulgarian report implicating Hezbollah in the deaths of five Israelis in a bus bombing last summer, signaling that it will use the findings to focus on a diplomatic battle rather than military retaliation against the Lebanese militant group.

Israel has long blamed Hezbollah for the attack, which targeted a bus carrying Israeli tourists in the Black Sea resort town of Burgas.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the report “further corroboration of what we have already known, that Hezbollah and its Iranian patrons are orchestrating a worldwide campaign of terror that is spanning countries and continents.”

The bomb exploded as the Israeli tourists boarded a bus from the airport to their hotel. The blast also killed the Bulgarian driver and the bomber.

Instead of hinting at retaliation, Netanyahu signaled he would step up his efforts to press the European Union to declare Hezbollah a terrorist group. “We hope the Europeans learn the proper conclusions from this about the true character of Hezbollah,” he said.

Analysts said they did not expect Israel to retaliate now that Bulgaria has named Hezbollah.

“When Israel acts, it is in order to prevent a security threat, to prevent a concrete attack. It is not in order to punish,” said Israeli counter-terrorism expert Boaz Ganor.

Last week, U.S. and regional officials said Israel struck a military research center and a convoy carrying sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles from Syria to Hezbollah. Israel has not officially confirmed it carried out the airstrike, though its defense minister this week strongly hinted at Israeli involvement.

Israel and Hezbollah have a violent history. The two fought an inconclusive monthlong war in 2006, when Hezbollah fired nearly 4,000 rockets at Israel. Israel’s heavy aerial bombardments caused much damage to civilian infrastructure but ultimately were unable to stop Hezbollah from continuing to amass a large stockpile of rockets just beyond Israel’s northern border.

Hezbollah accuses Israel of assassinating a top commander, Imad Mughniyeh, in 2008, when a bomb tore through his car in Damascus, Syria.

Israel, meanwhile, accuses Hezbollah of maintaining a network of operatives around the world who plot against its citizens. Israel has attributed a series of attacks on its citizens in recent months to Hezbollah, and by association, its patron, Iran.

Israel has prodded countries to brand Hezbollah a terror organization. A few countries, like the U.S. and Canada, have agreed. While Holland and Britain have also listed Hezbollah, Israel has so far been unable to persuade the European Union as a whole to take action. Bulgaria is an EU member.

Organizations placed on the EU terror list would struggle to function in the countries in which they are banned. Hezbollah operatives and lawmakers could be prohibited from entering Europe, and activities such as planning attacks or fundraising could be hindered.

An Israeli official said Israel plans to continue sharing intelligence on Hezbollah with European allies as it has in the past, but that in light of the report, it would press the Europeans harder to punish Hezbollah. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the Bulgarian investigation with reporters.

Efraim Inbar, head of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, said the Bulgarian report could force the EU into action.

“An official Bulgarian investigation — from a country which is a member of the European Union — will make it difficult for the Europeans not to put them on the list,” he said.