When Israeli and Syrian officials begin their talks in Washington this week, the worsening security in southern Lebanon is certain to be on the agenda.
The situation escalated last Friday morning when the fundamentalist Hezbollah terrorist group launched a Katyusha rocket attack on northern Israel.
The attack landed at a Club-Med resort in the Western Galilee town of Achziv, killing a French cook and wounding eight others — four Spanish tourists and three Israelis, including an 8-year-old boy.
In response, Israeli air force planes bombed suspected positions of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah in southern Lebanon.
Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has made it clear to Syria — via the United States — that there is a limit beyond which the IDF would not be able to remain passive if the situation in the north continues to deteriorate.
Rabin reportedly believes that the escalation in violence is attributed in part to the Syrians’ desire to “heat up” the border in advance of the negotiations.
At the very least, Israeli sources say, Syria could act to prevent some of the Katyusha attacks by the rejectionist Hezbollah, but there is no evidence that Damascus is doing so.
Rabin is also apparently dissatisfied with the level of control that the IDF is exercising over its South Lebanon Army allies.
Last Friday’s attack, which included the firing of 13 Katyusha rockets on northern Israel, was trumpeted by Hezbollah as a response to an artillery barrage by the SLA the day before that killed a woman in the southern Lebanon village of Shakra.
Israeli sources said the SLA’s barrage was not coordinated with Israel, or even with the senior command of the SLA itself.
Rabin was quoted as saying the SLA was “getting Israel involved with Lebanon villages – and the Hezbollah hits back with rockets.”
As a result, Rabin, who also serves as Israel’s defense minister, has ordered the IDF to take steps to attach its own liaison personnel to all artillery positions of the SLA.
Parallel to this move on the ground, the prime minister has instructed the IDF Chief of Staff, Lt-Gen Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, to take up the worsening situation on the Lebanese border with his Syrian counterpart, General Hikmat Shihabi, when the two begin a round of meetings in Washington on Tuesday.
The two commanders’ three days of talks marks a long-awaited resumption of high-level Israeli-Syrian negotiations.
Shahak’s predecessor, Ehud Barak, met with Shihabi in December for one truncated round of unsuccessful talks and the process has been in virtual abeyance since then.
Although the talks are intended to focus primarily on possible security arrangements for the Golan Heights as part of a peace deal with Syria, the situation in Lebanon has taken on increasing urgency in recent days.
In Jerusalem, meanwhile, members of the Likud opposition have bitterly criticized the government for what they have labeled “weakness” in the face of deliberate provocation by Syria and its dupe, Hezbollah.
A senior Likud Knesset member, Eliahu Ben-Elissar, demanded Sunday that the government order Shahak to confine his talks with Shihabi to the Lebanese border situation and to insist that Syria take action against Hezbollah before entering into negotiations regarding security arrangements on the Golan.
On a more basic level, the Likud is accusing the Rabin government of illegitimately involving the IDF, through Shahak, in its policymaking on the controversial matter of the Golan.
The Likud argues that as long as the question of the final border itself has not been resolved, Shahak cannot conduct meaningful talks on `security arrangements.’ As a result, the opposition contends, Shahak has been brought into the process in order to smooth the government’s way towards ceding the whole of the Golan to Syria.
Meanwhile, political commentators both in Jerusalem and in Damascus were briefed over the weekend by their respective governments not to expect a major breakthrough in this week’s round of talks.
In Washington, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Itamar Rabinovich, said although “this is an important meeting, it should not be billed beyond the proper proportions.
“There cannot be an agreement reached on security arrangements within these three days,” he said.
The Washington talks are scheduled to be followed by further rounds, involving lower-ranking officers, in July.
Meanwhile, the Syrian vice president, Abdel Halim Khaddam, visiting Iran this weekend, reportedly declined his Iranian hosts’ urgings that Syria refuse to sign a peace treaty with Israel.
The fact that reports to this effect emanated from Damascus gave Israeli officials grounds for some guarded optimism.
Khaddam was quoted as saying that Syria demands a full Israeli withdrawal to the border of June 4 1967, when Israeli captured the Golan Heights during the 1967 Six-Day War. Khaddam also demanded balanced and equal security arrangements as well as an Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon.
“Neither side can attain security at the expense of the other,” said the Syrian official, who was accompanied on his weekend visit to Tehran by Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa.