Leaving Lebanon

Israel signed the Oslo peace agreement with itsold enemy, Yasser Arafat, because by 1993 the alternatives had becomeinsufferable. The Palestinian intifada, a revolt of thestreet, was sapping the morale of the Israeli army, fighting a futilesix-year battle with one hand tied behind its back. Nightlytelevision footage of soldiers in combat fatigues, chasing teenageboys wielding slingshots and petrol bombs, was undermining Israel’sdeterrent credibility in its confrontation with the Arab states aswell as its international moral case.

Something similar is happening now over Israel’smilitary presence in Southern Lebanon. Israel keeps a few hundredtroops dug into a narrow 75-mile long “security belt” from theMediterranean to the foothills of Mount Hermon, varying in depth fromtwo and a half miles to eight miles, alongside its surrogate SouthLebanese Army. Others enter on day and night patrols. But they havefewer and fewer answers to an increasingly sophisticated foe, thehighly-motivated Shi’ite Muslim Hizbollah militia. And the Israelipublic, inspired by a campaigning group of soldiers’ mothers, is nolonger convinced that the price of this war of attrition is worthpaying in the lives of its young conscripts.

Last year 39 soldiers died in combat north of theGalilee border and 93 were wounded. A further 73 were killed when twotransport helicopters collided on their way to the battle zone. Sofar this year, the army spokesman has logged four dead and 36wounded.

The Iranian-sponsored Hizbollah plays hit-and-runwith missiles, mortars and roadside bombs, then melts into the hillyscrublands of southern Lebanon or hides behind the civilian shield offriendly villages. Israel, which has burned its fingers there in thepast, is inhibited about using the full weight of its firepower –tanks, artillery and air strikes — against a guerrilla opposition.Once again, Israel is being made to look vulnerable.

Hizbollah rubs salt in the wound by sending videoteams in with its raiding parties and distributing the footage to thelocal and international networks. Israel television’s two channelsare their best customers.

Binyamin Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition hasconcluded that the time has come to get out of the quagmire. Israel,it insists, has no territorial ambitions in Lebanon. The purpose ofthe security belt was and remains to protect the towns and villagesof Northern Israel from harassment by Hizbollah and hostilePalestinian militias.

Now, Netanyahu, supported by the defenseestablishment and ex-General Ariel Sharon, who sent the tanks intoLebanon in 1982, is seeking a way to do the same job from south ofthe border. The question is how. Can the Lebanese army be persuadedto deploy in the south and restrain Hizbollah, as it did with themyriad militias that flourished during the civil war of the ’70s and’80s? Israel believes the army is strong enough now for the task. Butwill the Syrians, who maintain close to 40,000 troops of their own innorth-eastern Lebanon and call the shots in Beirut, let it?

Senior Israeli and Lebanese officials have beenmeeting discreetly in Europe to explore the options. The French (asthe former Lebanese colonial power) and the Americans are offeringdiplomatic support. The United Nations Secretary-General, Kofi Annan,is probing. The Lebanese are interested. The Israeli “occupation” isan affront to their sovereignty. The instability threatens theirambitious economic recovery program. But they are not masters intheir own land.

Damascus has signaled its opposition to anegotiated evacuation. President Hafez Assad’s prime interest is toget Israel out of the Golan Heights, a Syrian plateau which itconquered in 1967. He would like nothing better than to trade peacein Lebanon for land on the Golan. If the Israelis won’t deal, heprefers to make them sweat.

In the absence of Syrian approval, Israel isdebating alternative scenarios. Lebanon may be too weak to sign astructured deal on its own, but it has hinted that if Israel went,its troops would fill the vacuum. It has also suggested that it wouldnot accept a Syrian veto as Assad’s last word. There is too much atstake for Lebanon.

Would an unwritten understanding satisfy Israel’ssecurity needs along the northern border? Defense Minister YitzhakMordechai, and Israel’s veteran Lebanon troubleshooter, Uri Lubrani,think it might. A credible deal with Lebanon might prompt theAmericans, with the backing of the United Nations, to persuade Assadto acquiesce.

Ariel Sharon is not convinced. Instead, theInfrastructure Minister has proposed that Israel pull outunilaterally in stages, then announce that any attack on Israel’sborder communities, or on its South Lebanese Army allies, would evokea massive response – not only against Hizbollah, but against theLebanese civilian infrastructure and the Syrian garrison.

Both approaches are on the agenda, though criticsfear that the Sharon plan would risk a broader conflagration with theSyrians. The Prime Minister is encouraging Mordechai and Lubrani totest the ground, however long it takes. Last weekend, the Cabinetadded its seal of approval.

The boys will not be home for Pesach, but for thefirst time Israel is arguing not about whether to pull out, but how.As Ron Ben-Yishai, a military commentator, put it in themass-circulation Yediot Aharonot: “Something is starting tomove.”