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Israel Hopes Pressure on Syria in Lebanon Could Lead to Peace Talks

Anti-Syrian sentiments sweeping across Lebanon have stirred peace-making passions in Israel. Buoyed by the prospect of an end to Syria’s occupation of their northern neighbor, Israeli officials are sounding increasingly hopeful of new ties between Jerusalem and Beirut.

“Lebanon can be the next candidate for a full and real peace,” Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres told reporters Sunday after talks with the visiting Jordanian foreign minister, Hani Mulki.

“There are no border disputes, no cravings for water or land. There is no reason for it not to exist as an independent and vital member of the Middle East.”

According to veteran Israeli analyst Ehud Ya’ari, some Lebanese politicians such as Druse leader Walid Jumblatt are demanding that the Lebanese track in negotiations with Israel be disconnected from any talks with Syria.

With Israel having ended its occupation of a security zone in southern Lebanon in 2000, the only territorial dispute remaining on the northern border is over the area known as Shebaa Farms.

Yet the road to rapprochement could be difficult.

Lebanese leaders have been slow to speak explicitly of peace with the Jewish state. Many are still embittered by the Israeli invasion of 1982 and the now-defunct security zone.

But most also fear that the Syrian regime, which is the main power broker in Lebanon, would not appreciate any quick overtures toward Israel.

On Saturday, Syrian President Bashar Assad disappointed Western hopes of a speedy exit from Lebanon by announcing Saturday that troops would be pulled back gradually, in two stages.

“Only full implementation of Resolution 1559, which means a full withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon, can mean full implementation,” Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said in response, referring to a U.N. Security Council resolution.

The Lebanese redeployment was expected to begin as early as Monday. But Syria’s proxy in southern Lebanon, Hezbollah, vowed never to disarm.

“Lebanon needs the resistance to defend itself,” Hezbollah chief Sheik Hassan Nasrallah told reporters over the weekend.

Israel sees the strategic situation as the exact opposite: Hezbollah, as Syria’s and Iran’s radical militia in Lebanon, is a deliberate obstacle toward normalization of ties with the more moderate officials in Beirut.

Syria “supports Hezbollah, which ruins Lebanon internally,” Peres said. “The time has come for them to allow Lebanon to live independently, with calm and concord between the ethnic sects.”

Ya’ari argued that Israel should jump-start the process by declaring its readiness to enter peace talks with Lebanon.

“If Lebanese President Emile Lahoud rejects the approach, as can be expected, Israel will lose nothing,” he wrote in the Jerusalem Report magazine. “As American and French pressure on Syria to withdraw continues, this is an obvious step for Israel.”

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