The Debate Over Lebanon

Since the beginning of this year, 103 Israelisoldiers have died in, or on their way to, war in Lebanon. Twelvelost their lives in a botched marine commando raid last week. Thetotal death toll since the 1982 “Peace for Galilee” invasion nowstands at about 1,200, and since the pullback to the South Lebanesesecurity zone in 1985, some 500 soldiers have died.

More and more, Israelis are starting to askwhether the price is too high. They include military men such asAriel Sharon, who, as Defense Minister under Menachem Begin, sent thearmy into Lebanon in the first place, and the new Labor leader, EhudBarak. They are not talking about an unconditional retreat, but areconsidering another, less costly, way to protect the Israelicommunities along the northern border.

The debate cuts across party and ideologicallines. There are no Jewish settlements in southern Lebanon, nosignificant holy sites. The security zone — 75 miles long, from theMediterranean to the Hermon foothills, varying in depth from 2 1/2miles to eight miles — was created to keep the terrorists and theirKatyusha rockets away from the Galilee towns and villages. PrimeMinister Binyamin Netanyahu has said repeatedly that if there were nothreat, he would pull the army back tomorrow.

First to applaud would be the mothers and fatherswho sit by the telephone while their conscript sons man theobservation posts or patrol every night in the rocky, treacherouswooded hills and valleys across the frontier. Some parents have beendemonstrating outside the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, but mostswallow their anxiety. They recognize that there is a problem.

Yossi Beilin, an architect of the 1993 Oslo peaceaccords and a minister in the last Labor government, has launched apublic campaign to bring the boys home. Early this week, he claimedthat hundreds of citizens had signed up for his “Movement for a SafeWithdrawal from Lebanon.”

Like everyone else, Beilin believes the bestsolution would be a deal with Syria — which pulls the strings inLebanon and controls the supply routes to the Shi’ite Hezbollahmilitia and other enemies of the Jewish state. But he doesn’t seethat coming in a hurry, and he doesn’t see why Israel should giveSyrian President Hafez al-Assad a veto on redeployment.

Instead, he suggests that Israel act on thehalf-forgotten United Nations Security Council resolution 425, whichended an earlier Israeli invasion — Operation Litani — in1978.

“We should,” he told me, “contact the forces onthe ground, including Hezbollah, and try to reach informalunderstandings with them. These would include collective andindividual solutions for our allies of the South Lebanese Army. Then,we should withdraw from Lebanon, strengthen the security fence, anddeploy our forces south of the international border. If there isstill violence, we should feel free to act against them.

“The whole idea of the security zone was notjustified. It doesn’t prevent Katyushas hitting Kiryat Shemona; itdoesn’t prevent terrorist incursions. We have to defend Israel fromwithin Israel. It won’t be simple. We may have to spend a lot ofmoney on a new fence. But if it is required to do so, the army willfind a way.”

Sharon, the supreme hawk, and Yossi Beilin, theultimate dove, are strange bedfellows, but on Lebanon, they aresharing the same perch.

“One thing is clear,” Sharon wrote in YediotAharonot, “it would be wrong to persist with the present methods.Sometimes, things have to be examined from scratch and altered inline with developments. There is no place to worry here aboutpersonal honor or prestige. All minds should be mobilized immediatelybecause, in Lebanon, a costly battle is going on.”

So far, Netanyahu is not convinced. In a Cabinetmeeting on Sunday, he reproached another Likud member, Michael Eitan,for suggesting that it was time for a rethink. “We all want to getout of Lebanon under the right conditions,” he told the scienceminister, “but idle talk of a hasty withdrawal under enemy pressureonly encourages Hezbollah and serves as fuel for its rockets.”

The prime minister, too, has found an unfamiliarally, in the leftist Meretz party leader Yossi Sarid. “Withunilateral withdrawal, without any agreements,” Sarid said, “anunbearable security situation might be created in the north, whichwill make it necessary to go back into southern Lebanon under moredifficult and more dangerous conditions. What good would that do? Weshould have taken the troops out just to send them back in?”

The debate continues.