NEW YORK (Feb. 13)
Prime Minister Ehud Barak has to make a difficult calculation.
Months ago, he vowed to withdraw Israeli troops from southern Lebanon by July – – with or without an accompanying peace deal with Syria.
That vow was widely credited with bringing Damascus back to the negotiating table in December.
But now the Israeli-Syrian talks have been suspended, and Barak has to weigh whether he should wait longer and see if the negotiations will be revived — or pull the troops out even earlier than July.
From the Israeli standpoint, a withdrawal from Lebanon after reaching an agreement with Syria — one that would be accompanied by guarantees of security along Israel’s northern border — would be preferable to a unilateral withdrawal.
But waiting can prove costly, especially now that Hezbollah has become emboldened by Barak’s pledge and wants to inflict heavy damages on Israeli troops. The more losses it inflicts, the more it will appear that the unilateral withdrawal is a unilateral Israeli defeat.
During the past three weeks, seven Israeli soldiers have died in Hezbollah attacks, prompting growing calls from the Israeli public to pull the troops out before July.
At least half of Barak’s Cabinet favors an early withdrawal, according to the Israeli daily Ma’ariv.
Joining the calls is none other than opposition leader Ariel Sharon, the architect of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon.
“The posts in Lebanon today have become anachronistic, and we must get out,” he said Sunday. “Situations change.”
The same day, the father of the latest Israeli casualty sounded a heartfelt call for early withdrawal.
Arye Itach, a reserve colonel who founded the infantry unit in which his son Tzachi was killed last Friday in a Hezbollah rocket attack, said Israeli soldiers in Lebanon are “cannon fodder” because the government does not allow them to operate freely.
“We must move up the timetable,” Itach told Israel Radio hours before his son’s funeral Sunday. “This killing is terrible.”
Meanwhile, Israeli soldiers stationed in the southern Lebanon security zone have been publicly questioning the wisdom of remaining there.
Last week, Israel Radio aired remarks by troops reflecting their low morale and desire to pull out of southern Lebanon as soon as possible.
“We have no business here,” said one. Another added: “If we’re going to leave anyway, why stay and give them a few more dead?”
Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department criticized Syria for not influencing Hezbollah to stop its attacks on Israeli troops. The “evidence is clear” that they need to exercise their influence more effectively, spokesman James Rubin said.
Last Friday, U.S. officials convened a five-nation monitoring committee in an attempt to stem the growing violence in southern Lebanon.
But Israel walked out of the meeting on Barak’s orders after Hezbollah killed another Israeli soldier hours earlier.
The next day, Hezbollah mounted a fresh attack against Israeli troops, and a Hezbollah official vowed more “humiliating” assaults.
Last week, in the worst escalation of the fighting in Lebanon in months, Israeli jets launched airstrikes on Hezbollah targets and on three power stations in Lebanon, one of them near Beirut.
Israeli officials also declared a two-day state of emergency, during which citizens in northern Israel remained in bomb shelters on the chance Hezbollah would launch cross-border Katyusha rocket attacks.
Foreign Minister David Levy vowed a scorched-earth policy in Lebanon if Hezbollah decided to retaliate with Katyushas, but those attacks did not materialize.
Meanwhile, the question does not appear whether Israel will withdraw its troops, but when.
Danny Yatom, a top Barak aide, made this clear during a television interview Sunday.
“We are leaving. We will go out of Lebanon not later than July 2000 — period.”