JERUSALEM, Dec. 12 (JTA) — The key to getting Israeli-Syrian officials back to the negotiating table may well have been Israeli policy toward Lebanon.
For months, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has stated that he plans to withdraw his troops from southern Lebanon by next July.
Last week, during a series of telephone calls between President Clinton and Syrian President Hafez Assad, Clinton made it clear that when Barak speaks about withdrawal in July, he means withdrawal and he means July.
Those calls were followed by Clinton’s dramatic Dec. 8 announcement that Israeli-Syrian negotiations, which were suspended more than three years ago, would resume this week in Washington.
For years, Syria has used Hezbollah gunmen in southern Lebanon as a proxy, giving them the green light to step up attacks on Israeli forces in order to force Israeli concessions — particularly regarding the Golan Heights, whose return Syria wants as part of any peace deal.
But a unilateral withdrawal of Israeli troops from Lebanon would deprive Assad of a key card.
Moreover, such a withdrawal, outside the context of negotiations with Syria or Lebanon, would mean that Syrian interests in Lebanon would not be guaranteed — something Assad could bargain for within the talks.
From the Israeli standpoint, a withdrawal from Lebanon after reaching an agreement with Syria — and presumably with the Lebanese, too — would be preferable to a unilateral withdrawal.
Indeed, the possibility of a relatively painless withdrawal from Lebanon — one that is accompanied by guarantees of security along Israel’s northern border — creates one of Israel’s most compelling reasons for resuming talks with Damascus.
Over the years, Hezbollah inflicted heavy losses in attacks on Israeli troops patrolling the nine-mile-wide security zone that Israel carved out in 1985 to defend its northern communities.
A cessation of that conflict is deeply desired by most all Israelis.
Syria, the main power broker in Lebanon, maintains 35,000 troops there.
Israel has no official position regarding the heavy Syrian military presence in Lebanon.
“This is between the Lebanese and the Syrians,” Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh told JTA.
Unofficially, however, Israel is more than willing to have the Syrian soldiers stay on because they are the most reliable guarantor of stability in Lebanon.
Syria, meanwhile, is already talking about including Lebanon in its talks with Israel.
“We think that progress on the Syrian and Lebanese fronts will be simultaneous,” said Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa.
“We hope to reach a peace agreement that will lead to an Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon and the entire occupied Golan at the same time.”
On Sunday, Sharaa predicted that an Israeli-Syrian agreement could be completed in a few months.
Barak has made similarly optimistic predictions.
As the talks resume, Israel is expecting Syria to restrain Hezbollah’s operations.
“The resumption of talks with Syria creates a situation that necessitates the cessation of fighting in southern Lebanon,” Sneh said Sunday.
Asked if that was a precondition for resuming the talks, Sneh replied that he had chosen his words carefully, not setting conditions.
“This will be Syria’s test whether it is in control in southern Lebanon,” he said.
For the time being, however, Hezbollah has adopted a facade of indifference to the resumption of Israeli-Syrian talks.
“We shall continue our attacks on Israeli targets in southern Lebanon despite the renewal of the peace talks,” said Sheik Na’im Kassem, Hezbollah’s deputy secretary-general.
“Our attacks will continue until Israel withdraws totally from the occupied territory to the international border, even if talks also resume” between Israel and Lebanon.
Hezbollah attempted to drive home the point Wednesday — the day Israeli-Syrian negotiations resumed in Washington — when its gunmen unsuccessfully tried to overtake an Israeli position in southern Lebanon.
The attack came amid reports that one of Israel’s demands in the first round of discussions will be that Syria rein in Hezbollah operations as the talks proceed.
There have been almost daily skirmishes between Israeli forces and Hezbollah in recent weeks.
Last week, a day after Clinton’s dramatic announcement about the resumption of the Israeli-Syrian talks, Hezbollah dispatched a commando unit to hit an Israeli target in the security zone.
As it turned out, Israeli troops spotted the unit and killed several of its members. But Hezbollah kept up the heat, attacking an Israeli patrol and an army position in the center of the zone.
That incident was followed by exchanges of fire throughout the weekend, culminating with Israeli air raids on Hezbollah targets.
Both Israel and Hezbollah are eager to avoid any signs of weakness on the eve of the talks.
If it is eventually deprived of Syrian support, Hezbollah will have to rely more heavily on Iran, which has already expressed its opposition to the renewed talks.
“The Iranians decided to jeopardize the peace process,” Sneh said ominously. “We should wait and see what they will do.”
The renewed Israeli-Syrian talks triggered rumors that Gen. Antoine Lahad, commander of the Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army, would soon leave for Paris.
The Arabic daily al-Hayyat reported over the weekend that the Israeli Defense Ministry had paid Lahad $5 million “for services rendered.”
Israel and the SLA denied the report, but just the same it seems clear that a countdown has already begun for the dissolution of the SLA.
Even as Israel and Syria return to the negotiating table, it remains unclear whether Lebanon, too, will enter talks with Israel.
On the face of things, it appears unlikely that Lebanon will run counter to Syrian interests.
As Sneh put it, “the decisive voice in Lebanon is the Syrian voice.”
But Lebanese interests are not necessarily congruent with those of Syria.
“Syria cannot compel Lebanon to normalize relations with Israel,” Middle East analyst Zvi Bar’el, an expert on Lebanon affairs, wrote this week in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz.
Along with seeking the withdrawal of Israeli troops from its soil, the Lebanese government wants Israel to take in some 350,000 Palestinian refugees currently living in Lebanon.
Whether all its demands are fully met, most observers believe that Beirut would sign an agreement with Israel shortly after Syria.
Lebanon’s business community is particularly interested in such an agreement, which could help turn Beirut once again into a financial capital of the Middle East, as it was in the 1960s and 1970s.
The country has begun to recover from its disastrous 1975-1990 civil war, with international firms returning to Beirut and the economy growing slowly.
For their part, Israelis are interested in entering the Lebanese market.
Some Israeli contractors have already sold building materials to Lebanese construction firms through third parties, and the Lebanese market could be particularly attractive for Israeli firms involved in electronics and telecommunications.