JERUSALEM, Dec. 1 (JTA) — The deaths of seven Israeli soldiers in southern Lebanon during the past two weeks have reawakened a longstanding debate about whether Israel should withdraw from the region. Intimately linked to this debate is the question of how to deal with Syria, which, with tens of thousands of soldiers in Lebanon, is the undisputed power broker there. Indeed, whenever the fighting heats up in southern Lebanon, political analysts shift their gaze toward Syrian President Hafez Assad, who allows the shipment of armaments from Iran through Syria to their ultimate destination — the Hezbollah gunmen who are trying to drive Israeli troops out of its 9-mile-wide security zone carved out of southern Lebanon. In the wake of the Israeli deaths — caused by what has become Hezbollah”s most effective weapon, roadside bombs — demonstrations took place outside the Prime Minister”s Office in Jerusalem and outside the army high command in Tel Aviv demanding that Israel withdraw from the Lebanese quagmire. Israel”s ministers and generals were meanwhile grappling with the same problem that has occupied them for years: After Israel established the security zone more than a decade ago, when would the proper time come to leave? Defenders of Israel”s presence in Lebanon say it is necessary to protect Israel”s northern communities until comprehensive agreements are reached with Syria and Lebanon. Critics of the policy have argued that it only leads to more casualties. “It isn”t a security zone,” Labor Knesset member Yossi Beilin declared in the legislature on Monday. “It”s a death trap.” While Beilin”s remarks prompted a sharp rebuke from Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai, Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon, with an eye toward possible talks with Syria, took the lead in the Cabinet this week advocating for a phased, unilateral withdrawal According to reliable sources here and abroad, there are indications that Assad wants to resume negotiations with Israel, which were suspended in March 1996. Seasoned observers had predicted a reawakening of Syrian interest in peace diplomacy after Israel and the Palestinian Authority signed the Wye agreement in late October that resulted in the transfer of more West Bank land to Palestinian control. They have long suggested that any progress on the Palestinian track would prompt Syria”s return to the negotiating table. On Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denied reports that he had received a message from Assad urging resumption of the talks. But informed sources insist there has been significant diplomatic traffic — not in the form of a direct message to the premier, but in signals conveyed through intermediaries. Most experts, both here and abroad, maintain that Israel”s problems in southern Lebanon are inextricably linked to the Golan Heights, which Syria demands as part of any peace accord with Israel. They say that the Syrian presence in Lebanon — and Syrian domination of Lebanese politics — means that Israel must deal with Damascus if it hopes to extricate itself from southern Lebanon. The Syrian connection is the main argument given by those in the Cabinet and the Israel Defense Force top brass who oppose a unilateral withdrawal. They contend that such a withdrawal must come in the context of an agreement or at least an understanding with Syria — or else Hezbollah will likely follow the withdrawing troops and launch its next attacks from the border fence itself. The contrary argument is that, once it is out of Lebanon and its occupation ended, the IDF will have wider options to strike back — and to enjoy international approval — if Israeli territory comes under Hezbollah attack. The key question, therefore, is not the tactical one of whether and how to pull the army out of southern Lebanon. Rather, it is whether Israel, under its present leadership, is prepared to negotiate with Syria over withdrawal from the Golan — since all acknowledge that Syria will accept no less than total or near-total withdrawal from the Golan as its price for a peace that would include the pacification of the Israeli-Lebanese border. In an effort to forestall such a withdrawal, a Knesset committee this week approved for a first vote by the entire legislature a bill aimed at preventing the government from granting any of the Golan Heights to Syria. The legislation would need the backing of 61 legislators and approval in a national referendum before becoming law. Under former premiers Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, Israel did come close to offering all of the Golan. But Assad, in what many felt was his myopic obstinacy, dug in over security arrangements and the nature of the peace provisions until it was too late. The Likud”s victory in 1996 effectively put an end to the terms of those negotiations. Assad has since demanded that if the talks resume, they must start from the point at which they left off — that is, with the previous Labor offer regarding the Golan. Netanyahu, until now, has just as insistently balked at that demand. But is Netanyahu after the Wye accord a new and different leader? Perhaps of equal significance, are Netanyahu and his newly named foreign minister, Ariel Sharon, a new and different leadership team after Wye? Both men pledged in the past not to agree to the further 13 percent Israeli redeployment on the West Bank that was ultimately agreed to at Wye. As a result, they are now branded by the far-right as traitors to the cause of Greater Israel. Are they riper, now, to reconsider their positions regarding the Golan, too? Their public utterances give no such indication. But that is to be expected. Sharon said Sunday that negotiations with Syria and the hostilities in southern Lebanon were separate issues that must be resolved independently. “If we link the security situation in Lebanon to negotiations with Syria, our soldiers in Lebanon and Israel”s northern border settlements will become hostages to Syria and targets for terrorist attacks, which will likely increase,”” he said. Sharon has previously called for the unilateral withdrawal of Israeli troops from Lebanon, accompanied by a strong warning to Beirut that continued attacks on Israel from its territory would result in the bombardment of essential infrastructure installations. Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai has meanwhile been a leading advocate for an Israeli proposal advanced earlier this year that was rejected by Damascus and Beirut. The proposal was based on U.N. Security Council Resolution 425, which calls for an Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon alongside security guarantees from Lebanon that attacks would not be launched on Israel from its soil. Some see Sharon”s stance as an effort on the part of the architect of the ill-fated 1982 Lebanon War to entrench Israel”s hold on the Golan by severing its connection to Lebanon — a move that would end Syria”s ability to pressure Israel, through Hezbollah attacks, into make far-reaching concessions across its entire northern front. There may, however, be another reading. Sharon may want out of Lebanon not to keep Israeli control of the Golan, but in order to strengthen Israel”s negotiating hand in soon-to-be-resumed talks regarding the territory. These talks, clearly, will result in a large-scale withdrawal if they are to succeed. The question is, though, how much withdrawal? Sharon, according to this theory, believes that Syria can be persuaded to make do with less than the border that existed before the 1967 Six-Day War. But in order to hang tough in a renewed Golan negotiation, under this assessment of Sharon”s motives, Israel must end its occupation of southern Lebanon.
NEWS ANALYSIS Lebanon withdrawal proposal linked to possible Syrian talks