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Will Syria send troops into southern Lebanon?

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JERUSALEM, April 2 (JTA) – Israel is downplaying Lebanese threats

that Syria would send its army into southern Lebanon if Israel withdraws from

the area.

Prime Minister Ehud Barak told his Cabinet that the threat issued by

Lebanon’s defense minister is not “realistic.” Barak also said he is pessimistic

that Israeli-Syrian negotiations would resume soon.

During Sunday’s weekly Cabinet meeting, Barak noted that the

remarks by the Lebanese defense minister reflected the growing concern in

Syria and Lebanon over the implications of an Israeli troop withdrawal.

Last month, the Cabinet approved the withdrawal, deciding it would

take place by July with or without an accompanying agreement with Syria and

Lebanon.

After President Clinton and Syrian President Hafez Assad failed last

week during a summit in Geneva to find a formula for resuming Israeli-Syrian

negotiations, it now appears that such a pullback would be unilateral.

Barak said Sunday that the withdrawal under the terms of U.N.

Security Council Resolution 425, which called in 1978 for the pullback, would

be viewed favorably by the international community, since it would contribute

to world order.

Both Syria and Lebanon oppose a unilateral Israeli withdrawal.

Syria has long used Hezbollah gunmen in southern Lebanon as a proxy,

giving them the green light to step up attacks on Israeli troops in order to force

Israeli concessions – particularly regarding the Golan Heights, whose return

Syria wants as part of any peace deal.

A unilateral withdrawal of Israeli troops from Lebanon would deprive

Assad of this leverage.

After the Cabinet meeting, several ministers lashed out at the

possibility that Syria would dispatch troops to the Israeli-Lebanese border.

The move would be “insufferable,” said Communications Minister

Benjamin Ben-Eliezer. “It would open a new front by Syria in addition to the

front in the Golan.”

The issue surfaced after Lebanon’s defense minister, Ghazi Zaiter,

suggested Saturday that Beirut might ask Damascus to deploy the troops to “put

Tel Aviv within range of Syrian rockets.”

His comments were part of the exchange of heated rhetoric that has

erupted since the failure of the Clinton-Assad summit.

Zaiter said his remarks represented his own personal opinion and did

not reflect official Lebanese policy.

Indeed, Lebanese officials later attempted to downplay his comments,

saying they were only intended to show that Lebanon would have several

options to choose from in the wake of an Israeli withdrawal.

Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa, during a visit Sunday to

Beirut, dismissed Zaiter’s remarks.

“We do not expect war and we do not want war,” said Sharaa, who

met with Barak in December and January for a series of negotiations that ended

in stalemate.

Meanwhile, Israeli political commentators said it is unlikely that Syria

would deploy troops to the border because this would be seen as a clear sign of

aggression.

Some Cabinet ministers were quoted as saying that Tel Aviv is already

within range of missiles located within Syria.

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