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News Analysis: Israel Lays the Ground Work for Withdrawal from Lebanon

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If there was any remaining uncertainty, Israel made it clear this week that it is planning to proceed with a withdrawal of its forces from southern Lebanon.

Prime Minister Ehud Barak conveyed the message clearly to visiting U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen, and Foreign Minister David Levy traveled to Geneva to convey the same message to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

The deadline for a withdrawal is still July 7, but the actual date may come even sooner as Barak gives up any lingering hope of a comprehensive agreement with Syria.

Barak pledged in his election campaign last year to withdraw Israeli troops from southern Lebanon by July, with or without a comprehensive peace agreement with Syria.

Now, apparently, the “with” option has evaporated and only the “without” scenario remains.

The Israeli premier, badly hurt politically by Syria’s recent rejection of his peace proposal, must now deliver on the Lebanon withdrawal — or he will lose his remaining credibility with the Israeli public.

To Egypt and other moderate Arab states, Barak’s motives and intentions blend comfortably into their broader strategy.

After all, as the Egyptians have publicly pointed out, it is patently illogical for the Arabs to oppose what they have always demanded: Israel’s withdrawal from sovereign Arab soil.

Barak has sought international backing for the planned withdrawal by saying it would take place under the terms of U.N. Security Council Resolution 425, which called for the pullback in 1978 — and which Israel now plans to implement.

The resolution was expected to top the agenda during Levy’s meeting in Geneva with Annan.

The United States which had asked Israel to slow its diplomatic preparations for the withdrawal, now seems to be agreeing with Levy’s overture to the international community.

Just the same, as Cohen made clear in Tel Aviv on Monday, Washington will not deploy troops in southern Lebanon as part of an international peacekeeping force following the Israeli withdrawal.

It was somehow fitting that Levy’s diplomatic encounter signaling Israel’s determination to make the unilateral withdrawal — in the face of angry Syrian objections — should be held in the same city where Syrian President Hafez Assad last week pulled down the curtain on Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations.

Assad’s flat rejection of Israel’s peace proposals, which President Clinton personally conveyed to the Syrian leader in Geneva, was greeted with incredulity both in Jerusalem and in Washington.

If Assad was going to offer a humiliating rejection, Israeli and U.S. officials wondered, why had Assad asked Clinton to meet him in the first place?

The officials have been hoping that Assad was playing a game of brinkmanship, but with each passing day since the Geneva summit, that hope is fading.

“The ball is in Syria’s court,” Clinton said after the summit — and it appears that it will be staying there indefinitely as Syrian diplomats fan out among Arab and world capitals to explain that it was Israel’s obstinacy that blocked an agreement.

Syria is demanding a full return of the Golan Heights to the boundary that existed before the 1967 Six-Day War — that is, including the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee.

Israel, which demands full control of what is its most significant water source, suggested trading land elsewhere for the slim strip of shoreline. Barak and other Israeli officials have pointed to the 1923 international border carved out by Britain and France, which did not give the Syrians any presence on the Galilee.

Clinton implicitly endorsed Barak’s offer to Assad.

Syria rejected the offer — and it is now opposing Israel’s plans for a unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon.

Syria has long used Hezbollah gunmen in southern Lebanon as a proxy, giving them the green light to step up attacks on Israeli troops to try to force Israeli concessions — particularly on the Golan.

A unilateral withdrawal of Israeli troops from Lebanon would deprive Assad of this leverage.

According to several analysts, Syria also opposes the withdrawal because it would throw a harsh spotlight on its own continued presence in Lebanon, where it maintains some 35,000 troops.

An Israeli withdrawal, these analysts say, could increase pressure on Syria to leave, too.

Whatever their thinking, Syrian and Lebanese officials are now resorting to threats in order to deter Barak from his course.

The latest of these came over the weekend, when the Lebanese defense minister announced that if Israel leaves, the Syrian army might deploy along the Israeli-Lebanese border.

For 24 years, ever since Syria’s first incursion into Lebanon in 1976, Damascus has been careful not to move its troops south of Sidon under an unwritten agreement with Israel.

If it did so now, it would raise tensions between the two countries.

Syria itself was quick this week to dissociate itself from the Lebanese minister’s assertion.

For its part, Israel was slow to react officially, deliberately giving Damascus time to defuse the potential bombshell.

On that level, at least, the two sparring partners still read each other clearly — and understand their common interests.

But the danger of armed exchanges, which could quickly escalate to draw in the Syrians, will still be present following an Israeli withdrawal.

Hezbollah gunmen or Palestinian groups that oppose the Oslo peace process, attacking across the border, could trigger massive Israeli retaliations against Lebanon.

Given the high concentration of Syrian troops, civilians and economic interests on Lebanese soil, a confrontation between Israel and Syria could well occur.

Israel is turning now to Annan and the international community in an effort to reduce that risk.

The U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon, known as UNIFIL, has been in the southern portion of the country, where it has not done very much, for more than 20 years.

Now, possibly, it could finally come into its own as a genuine peacekeeping mechanism and implement its mandate under Resolution 425, which calls on it to help the Lebanese government restore control over the southern portion of the country.

France, for one, is eager to see its soldiers involved in such a mission — if, of course, there is credit to be gained for it within the Arab world.

The commander of the South Lebanon Army, Israel’s militia ally in Lebanon, has little faith in this scenario.

Gen. Antoine Lahad declared this week that his soldiers would stay together as a fighting force to protect their villages after an Israeli withdrawal.

Informed Israeli sources wonder, though, to what extent the general’s fighting words actually represent the fighting morale of his soldiers.

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