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News Analysis: with Israel-syria Talks Stalled, Tensions in Southern Lebanon Grow

Just as it was becoming clear that the Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations were sinking deeper into deadlock, fighting intensified in the southern Lebanon security zone, where nine Israeli soldiers were killed in two separate attacks.

The developments are far from unconnected.

Syria, with some 30,000 troops stationed in the Bekaa Valley, is the leading power broker in Lebanon.

The on-going, off-going Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations have often been cited by both sides as the key to ending two decades of incessant strife in southern Lebanon.

Israel has long maintained that Syria could rein in the Shi’ite Hezbollah movement in Lebanon if it chose to.

Damascus, in turn, has flatly stated that the fighting along Israel’s northern border will cease as soon as the Jewish state withdraws its troops from the security zone and concludes peace agreements with Syria and Lebanon.

And the price of that peace, says Syrian President Hafez Assad, is Israel’s willingness to hand over the Golan Heights completely as a precondition to engaging in peace talks.

Israeli leaders have expressed their willingness to turn over the area – but they emphasize that Israel would withdraw only in phases, and only in return for normalized relations with Damascus that would include open borders, free trade and an exchange of diplomatic representatives.

As the two sides show little signs of moving from these positions, southern Lebanon has once again became the site of bloody confrontations.

Six Israeli soldiers were killed and two wounded Sunday in the central sector of the southern Lebanon security zone after Hezbollah forces detonated a roadside bomb as an Israeli patrol was passing.

The latest Israeli fatalities came in the wake of another Hezbollah ambush that killed three Israeli soldiers on Oct. 12.

According to the Israel Defense Force, the latest attacks brought the total number of Israeli soldiers killed this year in Lebanon to 22 – more than in all of 1994, when 21 Israeli soldiers died.

As a result, of the latest fighting, Israeli commando units have reportedly been placed on high alert, and Israeli gunships have intensified their strafing of suspected Hezbollah hideouts.

The escalating fighting comes as Assad has once again blamed Israel for the lack of progress in the negotiations.

Meeting last week with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the Syrian leader reportedly asserted that Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was politically unable to hand over the Golan Heights in return for peace.

Surprisingly, Assad found support for this contention from one of the Labor Party’s leading doves.

Knesset member Haggai Merom, chairman of the legislature’s important House Committee, which regulates the body’s internal affairs, declared over the weekend that there were some in the Israeli government who sought to defer, for political reasons, any progress on the Israeli-Syrian front.

Citing what he termed “impeccable sources,” Merom said these unnamed government figures had apparently concluded that the latest accord with the Palestinians, signed in Washington on Sept. 28, was sufficiently controversial and complex in its implementation.

The Labor-led government, Merom added, now wanted no additional controversy or complexity, in the form of an accord with Syria, during the 13 months remaining until Israel’s general elections.

Whether Merom was correct or not, there was ample evidence coming from Washington to support the view that the Israeli-Syrian negotiations were in effect suspended.

U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher said last week after a round of separate sessions in Washington with Israeli and Syrian ministers that he would not schedule another round of shuttle diplomacy between Jerusalem and Damascus later this month.

He is scheduled to be in the region at that time to attend a Middle East Economic Conference in Amman, Jordan – but instead of attempting to nudge the two sides closer to the bargaining table, Christopher said he will return straight home from the conference to handle negotiations related to the latest cease-fire in Bosnia.

Observers in Jerusalem see this as a signal by the Clinton administration that it, too, is pessimistic regarding the chances of reviving the Israel-Syria negotiating track in the foreseeable future.

With this barren diplomatic backdrop, it is little wonder that Israeli observers are speculating over the degree of Syrian involvement or collaboration in the latest round of Hezbollah attacks on IDF units in southern Lebanon.

Commenting on the deaths of the six Israeli soldiers in Sunday’s ambush, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres cited the Syrian and Lebanese governments as sharing responsibility with Hezbollah for the attack.

Despite Merom’s allegation that the Israeli government already has its plate too full with the Palestinians, a dispassionate survey of the past three years of fitful negotiations between the Rabin government and Syria makes it difficult to accept the verdict that Israel is to blame for the two sides’ scant progress.

Assad has shown himself thoroughly insensitive to the Israeli democratic process, and disinclined to study it.

His hints of secret dealings with Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu are a crude and inefficacious form of pressure on Rabin.

Assad, moreover, has done almost nothing to woo Israeli public opinion – a move that would help Rabin persuade a skeptical public that trading the Golan for peace would be a wise move.

Israelis have been looking for the kind of sea changes in Syria that they saw in Egypt in the late 1970s, and in the Palestinian camp now, to convince themselves that a new and different relationship is possible.

In return for ceding the strategic Golan, ordinary Israelis want to be assured that they would be welcome as tourists or travelers in Syria.

The notion of getting into one’s car in Tel Aviv and driving, through Damascus, to Europe is tempting indeed to Israelis, who have been hemmed in by enemies ever since the founding of the Jewish state.

But nothing in Assad’s posture has given Israelis reason to anticipate a period of warm – or indeed even civil – relations with Damascus after signing a land- for-peace deal.

This, more than anything else, has rendered the present government politically wary of pushing toward an accord with Syria in the remaining year before elections.

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