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Netanyahu confirms secret talks to withdraw troops from Lebanon

JERUSALEM, Jan. 25 (JTA) — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday that Israel has long been holding secret talks over its military involvement in Lebanon. “We have been conducting them for a long time, under my guidance,” Netanyahu said, confirming a hint dropped by outgoing Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai earlier in the day. “I think it is fitting to speak less about it, even during an election period.” On Saturday night, Netanyahu dismissed Mordechai for negotiating with rival politicians planning to topple his government. On Monday Mordechai announced his candidacy for prime minister as the head of a new centrist party. Speaking to soldiers in northern Israel during his farewell ceremony, the former defense minister disclosed that Israel was involved in secret talks to try to resolve the hostilities in South Lebanon which claim the lives of troops each year. “There are negotiations, I cannot elaborate. I hope that some results will be achieved,” Mordechai said. “I have no doubt that on the agenda of any future government will be the resumption of negotiations with Syria and the withdrawal of troops from Lebanon, but it must be a withdrawal that will allow residents of northern Israel and those north of the border to live normal lives.” Israel maintains a 9-mile wide security zone in southern Lebanon. Israel previously put forward a proposal accepting United Nations resolutions to withdraw from Lebanon as long as Lebanon provides security guarantees that no attacks on Israel would be launched from inside its territory. But Damascus, the main power-broker in Lebanon, and Beirut both rejected the proposal, saying any arrangement for a troop pullback must be unconditional. Talks between Israel and Syria were suspended in 1996 after Damascus failed to condemn an Islamic militant terrorist attack inside Israel. Efforts to restart them have failed, with Israel and Syria disagreeing over the terms necessary to restart the talks. According to media reports, Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon discussed a new proposal during recent trips to France and Russia. Israel’s Cabinet previously rejected a proposal made by Sharon for a unilateral pullback from Lebanon with threats of punitive strikes if attacks were launched from Israel’s northern neighbor.

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