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NEWS ANALYSIS Lebanon withdrawal debate wrenches mourning Israelis

JERUSALEM, Feb. 11 (JTA) — The wrenching nationwide debate over Israel”s continued presence in southern Lebanon is growing more impassioned. The debate has left Knesset members hurling insults across party lines. It also has prompted Israeli soldiers stationed inside the security zone to wonder aloud about support for them on the home front. But despite concerns over the army”s morale, and despite worries that public discussion can weaken Israel”s negotiating posture with Syria, it appeared this week that this long-simmering dispute cannot realistically be contained — particularly after last week”s devastating helicopter tragedy. Moreover, the fact that the debate crosses party lines lends the discussion additional weight while giving both sides” positions further credibility. The Feb. 4 mid-air collision of two military helicopters that claimed the lives of all 73 soldiers on board did not happen over Lebanon. It was an accident over northern Israel, apparently a mistake by one of the pilots. It could have happened anywhere and in any circumstances. But the fact that the two aircraft were ferrying troops to Israel Defense Force positions within the southern Lebanon security zone poignantly brought home to the grieving Israeli public the unending toll of lives that Israel”s 20-year embroilment in Lebanon continues to claim. More than 200 IDF soldiers have been killed since 1985 in southern Lebanon, which Israeli journalists have compared to the American quagmire in Vietnam. The poignancy was further underscored by the IDF”s use of helicopters to carry the troops. It is considered more dangerous for soldiers to travel by road, where Hezbollah fighters have been launching frequent deadly roadside bomb attacks. Israel”s involvement in Lebanon began in the late 1970s, when it sought to drive Palestinian fighters from Israel”s northern border. Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, remaining there for three years. When it withdrew in 1985, Israel carved out the nine-mile wide security zone as a buffer to protect its northern communities. For the bipartisan group of Israeli politicians now lobbying in favor of a unilateral withdrawal from the security zone, last week”s accident both helped and hindered their efforts. It helped by focusing the public on the predicaments of Israel”s Lebanon policy. It hindered by inevitably prompting cries of pained protest that urging withdrawal at this time of national mourning is almost unpatriotic. In the Knesset on Monday, a group of parliamentarians from the right and left gathered to pour scorn on a group of their colleagues who met Saturday night to promote a unilateral withdrawal. The organizers of the Saturday meeting said it had been planned well before the helicopter accident, but that did not silence their critics. Among the pro-withdrawal Knesset members who attended the meeting were Yossi Beilin of Labor and Michael Eitan of Likud — the two who recently led a bipartisan effort to formulate a broad consensus on what Israel”s positions should be in the upcoming permanent-status talks with the Palestinians. They were joined by another prominent Likud parliamentarian, Gideon Ezra, former deputy head of the Shin Bet, at whose home the planning session was held. Those favoring a unilateral withdrawal stressed that they are not calling for a disorganized, tail-between-the-legs pullout. “We want an agreed withdrawal,”” Beilin said, “with a third party — American or European — interposing its troops in the areas where the IDF is presently deployed.”” That view is backed by Netanyahu”s own public security minister, Avigdor Kahalani, who recently drew sharp criticism for calling Israeli troops serving in Lebanon “sitting ducks.”” Privately, Beilin is advocating a French military presence along the border. France has long seen itself as the protector of Lebanon, or at least of that country”s Christian population. Paris also has coveted a more active role in regional peace moves. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his aides, on the eve of his visit to Washington this week, made it clear that they oppose a unilateral withdrawal. He sees his talks with President Clinton as a crucial attempt to jump-start the long-stalled Israel-Syria peace track. He also subscribes to the traditional view of Israel”s defense establishment that the Lebanon quandary, ultimately, can only be resolved in the context of a general Israel-Syria pacification. Netanyahu won Monday the unequivocal support of Shimon Peres, the leader of the opposition, who urged restraint in the public debate at this time. Peres maintained that the focus of attention now must be the prime minister”s efforts, through the Americans, to get the talks with Syria on track again after they were suspended last March. He, too, argued that an accord with Syria would also pacify the Lebanese front. The two are far from alone in this view. A poll conducted jointly by the Gallup organization and the Israeli daily Ma”ariv indicated that 79 percent of Israelis oppose a unilateral withdrawal, while only 14 percent support it. Implicit in the arguments put forward by Netanyahu and Peres is the hope that once the talks with Syria resume, Damascus will take action to curb Hezbollah forces, who have been inflicting a constant toll of casualties on IDF soldiers stationed in Lebanon. On Sunday, in the latest flare-up of fighting, seven Israeli soldiers were wounded in a Hezbollah ambush of their armored patrol. Israel responded by launching several air strikes throughout the week on Hezbollah positions. The belief that Syria would restrain the Hezbollah fundamentalists after the negotiations resume may, however, prove little more than a vain hope. When the Israel-Syria talks were active between 1993 and 1996, Israeli officials frequently charged that Damascus was encouraging an escalation in southern Lebanon to boost diplomatic pressure on Israel. The Beilin-Eitan position maintains that it is fundamentally misguided to link Israel”s policy on the ground to Syrian whim. This is especially true if, as government officials here insist, Netanyahu intends to stay adamant in his rejection of the basic Syrian land-for-peace position regarding the Golan Heights. The Likud prime minister”s refusal to adopt his Labor Party predecessors” readiness to withdraw from the Golan in exchange for peace with Syria would seem, at least on the face of it, to make an early accord with Damascus unlikely — and thereby doom southern Lebanon to further strife and bloodshed. In terms of practical politics, observers here say, the test of the strength of the pro-withdrawal forces in Israeli society will come after Netanyahu”s return from Washington. An immediate resumption of the talks with Syria would, these observers believe, enable the government to shrug off with relative ease the calls for a radical reassessment of Israel”s Lebanon policy. By the same token, an ongoing stalemate with Damascus would help the pro-withdrawal lobby marshal popular sentiment that the government would find increasingly difficult to resist.