What To Do About Lebanon?

A new coded message has entered the chilly lexicon of Israeli anxiety. “Heavy fighting is taking place in Lebanon,” intones the news reader. Hundreds of mothers and fathers with soldier sons serving across the northern border know immediately what that means. There are casualties, but the families have not yet been notified.

All the parents can do is sit, wait and pray that no grim-faced officer comes ringing at their door.

At 3 a.m. last Friday, the call came to the Beersheba home of Moshe and Naomi Cohen. Their son, Eyal, a 20-year-old staff ser-geant, had been killed by Hezbollah, the Shi’a Moslem militia waging an escalating war of attrition in the “security zone,” a narrow band, up to 10 miles deep, stretching from the Mediterranean to the Hermon foothills.

Eyal, a tank commander who died while trying to rescue wounded comrades, was one of seven Israeli soldiers killed there in 11 days of hit-and-run combat. That compared with 16 over the previous 11 months.

Binyamin Netanyahu, whose antennae are finely tuned to the national mood, cut short a European tour and flew home for urgent consultations. The prime minister “did not rule out” a unilateral withdrawal, though he quickly amended it to exclude an “unconditional” pullout. The defense establishment brought forward an annual review of its Lebanese strategy.

Moshe Cohen, the bereaved father, was bursting with anger as well as grief when local reporters visited him later in the day. “I want to scream on behalf of the silent majority,” he told them, “the parents of all the soldiers who are in Lebanon, those who were there and those who will be there. We don’t have any business to do in Lebanon. Our sons there are sitting ducks.

“We have been in Lebanon for 16 years, and nothing good has come of it. What’s our goal? Why are we there? To defend our own bases there? For what has my son been killed? There’s no disgrace folding up. In any case, that would be preferable to the constant obituaries.”

More and more Israelis, including those such as Moshe Cohen, who have served long years in uniform, are asking the same questions. Military funerals, leading the prime-time television news bulletins with teen-age soldiers openly weeping for their fallen comrades, keep the issue at the top of everyone’s agenda.

Dozens of mothers demonstrated last Sunday outside the Prime Minister’s Office, where the Cabinet was debating what to do. “The government is silent, the soldiers are dying,” read a placard held high by Manuela Dviri, a bereaved mother. Among politicians who came to show solidarity was Jerusalem City Councilwoman Ofra Meirson, the leftist wife of rightist Agriculture Minister Rafael Eitan, who, as chief of staff in 1982, sent the army into Lebanon to start with.

As the debate continued, however, the prospect of unilateral withdrawal receded. The military came out vigorously against it, warning that it would look like a surrender to Hezbollah’s campaign of roadside bombs — and give Israel’s other enemies bad ideas.

Israeli analysts, in the army and the media, were almost unanimous that Syria held the key. Intelligence officers were convinced that Damascus, Hezbollah’s patron along with Iran, was calling the shots. President Hafez al-Assad signaled that he was ready to rein in the bombers, but only if Israel resumed negotiations aimed at returning the Golan Heights, held since the 1967 Six-Day War, to Syria.

Eitan Haber, a veteran military correspondent who served as Yitzhak Rabin’s spokesman in the Defense Ministry and his last premiership, spelled out the bleak choice in a Yediot Aharonot column: “There will be no solution in Lebanon without the Syrians. The Syrians want some sort of peace with Israel. The price of peace with Syria is withdrawal from the Golan Heights. There is no other option, and, right now, there is no leader who dares to propose that solution.”

One leader urging unilateral withdrawal was Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon, who, as defense minister, masterminded the 1982 invasion. His plan combines a phased evacuation with warnings to Lebanon and Syria that Israel will retaliate in force if ever it is attacked.