News Analysis: Israeli Toughness on Lebanon May Have Boosted Peace Talks

The violence along the Israeli-Lebanese border last week, which some had feared would derail the Middle East peace process, appears to have had the opposite effect.

Israel’s strong-handed response to violence in Lebanon and Washington’s intervention to bring the exchange of artillery and rocket fire to a halt is now viewed as having given a boost to peace negotiations between Israel and Syria.

With U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher shuttling from one Middle East capital to another this week, Israel’s northern border continued to be the center of attention for the second week running — only this week the focus was on peace, not war.

The security of northern Israel–both in the border areas facing the hills of Lebanon and in those below the Golan Heights — is the substance of a re-energized effort by the United States to move the desultory peace process toward concrete progress.

Having brokered a cease-fire in the brief but violent warfare that flared in southern Lebanon last week, Christopher was anxious to seize the momentum by personally mediating between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the tough Syrian leader Hafez Assad.

Rabin demonstrated that he, too, could be tough last week. In response to repeated attacks on Israeli soldiers by the Iranian-backed Hezbollah movement, the prime minister directed a vast array of Israeli fire power at hostile targets in Lebanon for five days running.

Paradoxically perhaps, the language of toughness is the one through which Rabin and Assad can make meaningful headway toward a peace settlement.

Seasoned observers recall that it was Rabin, as prime minister is 1975, who first enabled Assad to take control of Lebanon, giving an Israeli “green light” to the deployment of Syrian troops in that war-torn land, in support of beleaguered Christian forces.

At that time, Rabin argued forcefully that Syria’s control of Lebanon would redound ultimately to Israel’s advantage.

OPTIMISM IN DAMASCUS

The Syrian action last week in sharply reining in Hezbollah was, at least on the immediate tactical plane, a convincing vindication of Rabin’s prognostication of nearly two decades ago.

The fact that Syria acted as it did in defiance of Iran, Hezbollah’s chief backer, is the single most encouraging aspect of the entire episode, say Israeli officials.

After traveling to Egypt on Monday to meet with President Hosni Mubarak, Christopher met at length with Rabin on Tuesday and with Assad on Wednesday. He was due back in Jerusalem on Thursday for further talks, and some predicted he would stay in the region longer.

Israeli sources said Rabin had armed the U.S. secretary with a “new message” for the Syrian president.

Following the meeting with Christopher, Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa was optimistic about the peace talks.

“We believe that the talks Secretary Christopher has had today may salvage the peace process,” he told reporters in Damascus.

He added that had the Israeli shelling of southern Lebanon continued, they “would have buried the peace process in the rubble.”

While in Jerusalem on Tuesday, Christopher sought to bring Israel’s dovish president, Ezer Weizman, into the decision-making loop. In a private conversation at the president’s residence, the secretary reportedly argued that Israel needs to offer “a little more” to the Palestinians — in order to enable Assad to move ahead on his front.

While the Israeli-Syrian track in the peace negotiations is clearly in the forefront of the current diplomacy, the secretary has not abandoned the Israeli-Palestinian track. This despite the grief and anger that the bombardment of southern Lebanon caused to the Palestinian representatives, with whom Christopher met Tuesday.

According to Israeli sources, however, the secretary feels hamstrung by what he senses to be a lack of coordination between the Palestinian leadership in the territories — with whom he holds his meetings — and the Palestine Liberation Organization in Tunis, with whom he has maintained indirect contact through Egypt.

SURPRISE VISIT TO LEBANON

Foreign Minister Shimon Peres is pressing for a partial deal in which the Palestinians and the Israelis would sign a declaration of principles and immediately begin implementing an autonomy plan in the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank.

Christopher reportedly has promised the Palestinians that signing such a declaration would set the “five-year clock” running — toward the second phase of talks on the permanent status of the territories that is prescribed in the Camp David accords and documents establishing the framework for the 1991 Madrid peace conference.

But Israeli sources say the Palestinians’ insistence on introducing Jerusalem as an immediate negotiating issue is leading the talks into a dead end.

On Wednesday, Christopher made a surprise trip from Syria to Lebanon, where he discussed the peace process with President Elias Hrawi, Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri.

With security an obvious concern, Christopher and his aides traveled in armored transports that included two trucks with machine guns mounted on their roofs.

The United States, like Israel, has for years been pressing Lebanese authorities to curb the guerrilla activities of Hezbollah, the only faction allowed to keep its arms at the end of 15 years of civil war in 1990.

The Lebanese, in turn, maintain they cannot disarm Hezbollah until Israel withdraws from southern Lebanon.

But since the cease-fire went into effect last weekend, the Syrian-backed Lebanese have been dispatching troops to the south in what many observers see as a major blow to Hezbollah influence in the area.

After his meeting with the Lebanese, Christopher said that Beirut appeared ready to continue the 21-month-old peace talks with Israel.

“I want once again not to over-build expectations,” the secretary was quoted as telling reporters in the Lebanese town of Zahle, “but I think we will be able to resume the discussions, hopefully energized by these events.”

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