JERUSALEM, April 2 (JTA) – Israel is downplaying Lebanese threats
that Syria would send its army into southern Lebanon if Israel withdraws from
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
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
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
Some Cabinet ministers were quoted as saying that Tel Aviv is already
within range of missiles located within Syria.