Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin this week expressed interest in a Lebanese proposal for peace talks, but he rejected a precondition that negotiations rest on an Israeli troop withdrawal from southern Lebanon.
On Saturday, Lebanese President Elias Hrawi proposed that a joint Israel- Lebanon committee be set up to negotiate a timetable for Israeli withdrawal from South Lebanon within six months.
Hrawi told the Egyptian Middle East News Agency he would guarantee that there would be no attacks on Israeli troops in southern Lebanon by Islamic fundamentalist Hezbollah guerrillas if Israel would agree to the timetable.
While this was not an unprecedented offer,it was widely perceived this time as a conciliatory gesture by Syrian President Hafez Assad in the wake of President Clinton’s visit to the Middle East last week. Assad controls much of Lebanese politics, as well as the activities of Hezbollah.
But on Monday, Lebanese Foreign Minister Faris Bouez said the negotiations were preconditioned on a commitment by Israel to withdraw its troops from southern Lebanon.
Rabin, who returned to Israel on Monday from an economic conference in Casablanca, Morocco, did not dismiss the proposal.
But he said Israel would not accept a withdrawal of its troops as a precondition for the talks.
Rabin said he had discussed the proposal with U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher, whom he met with at the Casablanca conference, and had requested clarification from American mediators.
“If the meaning is that we have to commit ourselves to withdraw from the present line in south Lebanon for having this committee, it’s a non-starter,” Rabin told reporters on Monday.
Rabin was also skeptical that Hrawi could guarantee a cease-fire by the Iranian-backed Hezbollah guerrillas during the negotiations.
“On his promises alone, without putting it to a real test, we will not do anything,” he said.
Rabin reiterated a standing Israeli demand that in advance of negotiations the Lebanese army first disarm and disperse the Hezbollah guerrillas. Israel has also stated in the past that it will not withdraw until Syria pulls out some 40,000 troops it has stationed in Lebanon.
Israel established a security zone in southern Lebanon in 1982 to prevent Hezbollah attacks on its northern border. The site of sporadic skirmishes between Israel Defense Force troops and Hezbollah guerrillas, the security zone is currently Israel’s only active battle front.
The IDF has meanwhile launched an investigation into the circumstances surrounding a Hezbollah assault on an Israeli military post in southern Lebanon on Saturday. Staff Sgt. Almog Klein was killed in the attack and two other Israeli soldiers were lightly wounded.
In that incident, Hezbollah gunmen almost overran an Israeli position in the eastern sector of the security zone before being driven back.
Senior IDF officials have since labeled the actions of Israeli troops as a “scandal” and “shameful.”
But the commander-in-charge of the northern sector, Maj. Gen. Yitzhak Mordechai, described these terms as “excessive” and said the results of the investigation would be made public soon.
Mordechai admitted nonetheless that there were “local errors” which would be corrected and for which the officers and soldiers involved would be disciplined.
The investigation showed that the post, in difficult rocky terrain and surrounded by earthen ramparts, did not have a sentry posted – as called for in standing orders – at the time of the Hezbollah assault.
The gunmen managed to approach as far as the ramparts during the night, and were only discovered when they opened fire on the Israelis.
And even then, not all of the Israeli soldiers returned fire. Some of them were reported to have taken shelter in fox-holes, with their heads down.
Hezbollah gunmen, who have recently become more sophisticated in their military activities, now take videocameras along with their frontline fighters to record their activities for propaganda purposes.
Pictures of uniformed Hezbollah fighters planting their flag on the IDF position were shown on Israel Television on Sunday night, to the distress of many Israeli viewers.
Reserve Col. Moshe Givati, a former IDF operations officer in southern Lebanon and currently a writer and lecturer on military affairs, told Israel Radio on Monday that while the performance of individual soldiers was “very bad,” the IDF High Command must also bear the blame.
Some senior officer have complained that the IDF has had to cut short its training operations, during which troops are prepared for actual warfare.
Instead, they say, the IDF has had to devote more time and energy protecting Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, where they escort schoolchildren and adults whenever they leave the protection of their settlements.