News Analysis: Continued Presence in Lebanon Becoming Israeli Campaign Issue

Israel’s continued presence in southern Lebanon is likely to be a major issue in the country’s upcoming elections.

The continually rising death toll of Israeli soldiers, coupled with periodic Hezbollah rocket attacks on northern Israeli communities, has repeatedly prompted the question of whether — and how — to end Israel’s decade-long involvement in Lebanon.

Intimately linked to this debate is the question of how to deal with Syria, which, with tens of thousands of soldiers in Lebanon, is the undisputed power broker there.

Indeed, whenever the fighting heats up in southern Lebanon, political analysts shift their gaze toward Syrian President Hafez Assad, who allows the shipment of armaments from Iran through Syria to their ultimate destination — the Hezbollah gunmen who are trying to drive Israeli troops out of the 9-mile-wide security zone they have carved out of southern Lebanon.

Last month, after seven Israeli soldiers died in Lebanon during a two-week period, demonstrations took place outside the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem and outside the army high command in Tel Aviv demanding that Israel withdraw from the Lebanese quagmire.

This past weekend the issue was high on the agenda of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Inner Security Cabinet, which decided to reject proposals for a unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon.

That decision came after Hezbollah fired Katyusha rockets into northern Israel two weeks ago to retaliate for the deaths of seven Lebanese civilians during an Israeli air strike. Thirteen Israelis were wounded in the rocket assault.

During its meeting, the Security Cabinet in effect agreed to retain the status quo — a deadlocked situation in which there will be no pullback from Lebanon without an accompanying agreement with Syria.

But an agreement with Syria appears as elusive as ever — particularly after the Knesset this week gave its preliminary backing to a bill stating that any withdrawal in the Golan Heights would require at least 61 Knesset votes and a national referendum.

If the bill becomes law, it would hardly be an incentive for Assad, who insists on a return of the entire Golan Heights, to renew negotiations with Israel. Those talks were suspended by Israel in 1996 after Assad refused to condemn a series of Hamas terror attacks against the Jewish state.

While rejecting the call for a unilateral withdrawal, the Security Cabinet decided to adopt the army’s proposal regarding Israel’s retaliation policy in Lebanon.

The proposal calls for Israel to respond to Katyusha attacks on its northern communities by attacking targets inside Lebanon.

The ministers in effect gave their backing to a policy long espoused by Public Security Minister Avigdor Kahalani: Retaliate for Hezbollah rocket attacks by hitting important Lebanese infrastructure sites — such as power plants, bridges and roads — so that the Lebanese government will be forced to contain Hezbollah.

Critics point out that this plan has a major shortcoming since Syria, not the Lebanese government, is calling the shots in the region, and Damascus has little desire to take the pressure off Israel.

The importance of Lebanon as an election issue will to some extent be determined by Hezbollah, which could inflict heavy Israeli losses between now and the May 17 elections.

Netanyahu’s government could also move the issue to the forefront if it attempts to launch a campaign to change the present stalemate.

An indication of the sensitivity of the situation came again this week, when Hezbollah fired three Katyusha rockets at Israel’s northern border. The attack came after an Israeli air strike in Lebanon that wounded five Lebanese civilians and one Syrian soldier.

Senior Israeli military sources said the strike was intended to signal to Syria that Israel would not tolerate continued Hezbollah operations.

“The Syrians cannot stay out of the game for a long time,” said a military source. The Israeli military “will continue to operate throughout Lebanon, hitting at Hezbollah’s infrastructure, and the Syrians better take this into account.”

Israel’s military operations in Lebanon were a key factor in determining the outcome of the 1996 race for prime minister.

In April of that year, during Israel’s Operation Grapes of Wrath campaign against Hezbollah, Israeli shelling of a U.N. base in southern Lebanon resulted in the deaths of at least 91 Lebanese refugees who had taken shelter there.

Many Israeli Arabs retaliated for that action by refusing to vote in the election for prime minister, a move that denied the incumbent, Shimon Peres, their much needed support. Netanyahu won that election by a razor-thin margin.

Although Netanyahu’s government has opted for now to maintain the status quo in Lebanon, public campaigns continue for a unilateral withdrawal.

Among the most vocal opponents of the present policy in Lebanon is an organization called the Four Mothers, a grass-roots group of mothers of Israeli soldiers serving in the security zone.

Among Israeli politicians, support for — and opposition to — the policy in Lebanon cuts across party lines.

For example, Knesset member Yossi Beilin of Labor is one of the most vocal supporters of withdrawal. His party colleague, Ephraim Sneh, is one of the most vocal opponents.

Defenders of Israel’s presence in Lebanon say it is necessary to protect Israel’s northern communities until comprehensive agreements are reached with Syria and Lebanon.

Critics of the policy argue that it only leads to more casualties — and in the process only serves the interests of Syria, which is using Hezbollah as a proxy to secure Israeli concessions regarding the Golan.

Calls for a unilateral withdrawal are strongly opposed by Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai, army chief of staff Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz and Uri Lubrani, coordinator of government activities in Lebanon.

A unilateral Israeli withdrawal, they argue, is too much of a risk and will only turn the inhabitants of the northern Galilee into hostages of Hezbollah.

Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon has proposed another alternative: a gradual Israeli withdrawal accompanied by a strong warning to Beirut that continued attacks on Israel from its territory will result in the bombardment of essential infrastructure installations.

Each phase of such a withdrawal would be accompanied by a wait-and-see period to determine whether Lebanon halts Hezbollah activities. If the Lebanese government does not take responsibility for security as Israeli troops withdraw, Israel would retaliate with full force.

Some see Sharon’s stance as an effort on the part of the architect of the 1982 war in Lebanon to entrench Israel’s hold on the Golan by severing its connection to Lebanon — a move that would end Syria’s ability to pressure Israel.

Meanwhile, Agriculture Minister Rafael Eitan, who was army chief of staff during the war in Lebanon, wants to go back to the same principles which guided that war.

“The formula is simple,” he said in a recent interview. “If you want to stop the shelling of the north, you have to keep Hezbollah rockets at a safe distance. The only way to keep them at a safe distance is to widen the security belt.”

This plan would necessitate, at least on a limited scale, another Israel invasion of Lebanon.

As the national debate continues, Israel keeps getting painful reminders of the price to be paid for its presence in Lebanon.

Among the latest reminders was the death last week of an Israeli soldier by friendly fire. The tragic incident occurred when two Israeli units set out on patrol together in the security zone but were separated when one got lost.

This week, Knesset Speaker Dan Tichon pleaded for an end to all the public debate sparked by the death of Staff Sgt. Ohad Zach.

“What do we need this communications storm for?” he asked, referring to the numerous news reports about the incident. “Let the broken family mourn in peace.”

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