JERUSALEM, March 5 (JTA) The Israeli government has unanimously endorsed a decision to pull Israeli troops out of southern Lebanon by July 2000, hinting this could be done even without an agreement with Syria.
After 18 years, “it is the end of the tragedy. It is the return of the boys home and the end of bleeding in Lebanon,” Prime Minister Ehud Barak said on Israel Television following Sunday’s Cabinet session.
Barak said that Israel preferred the troop redeployment take place as part of an arrangement, but if it becomes evident that a deal with Syria the main power broker in Lebanon is not in the offing, “the Cabinet will convene to discuss how to implement the decision.”
Lebanon immediately welcomed the Israeli government decision, but stressed that it prefers any Israeli troop withdrawal be carried out as part of an overall peace deal. Lebanese Prime Minister Salim al-Hoss said Beirut does not trust Israeli intentions if it were to withdraw from Lebanon in the absence of an accord.
The United States praised the decision, but there was no immediate Syrian reaction.
The Cabinet statement also said that in the absence of an accord with Syria, the government would reconvene to discuss how to carry out the decision.
The government decision Sunday affirmed the pledge Barak made when he took office last year to pull the Israel Defense Force out of Lebanon by July 2000.
Public pressure has grown during the past year within Israel for pulling its troops out of Lebanon, where they have maintained a military presence for 18 years, amid continuing IDF casualties in clashes with the Iranian-armed and Syrian-controlled Hezbollah.
Opposition leader Ariel Sharon urged Barak to begin the troop pullback “immediately do not wait for an agreement.”
However, a unilateral pullback has also raised concerns that northern settlements will be left more vulnerable to cross-border attacks.
The IDF chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz, told high school students Sunday that Syria is capable of reining in Hezbollah gunmen, but is not interested in doing so because it views the hostilities in Lebanon as a bargaining chip in negotiations with Israel.
He said Israel must be prepared for the possibility of continued violence on the border if a withdrawal is carried out unilaterally.
At the same time, observers have suggested that a unilateral pullback could put pressure on Syria by removing the Lebanon issue as a bargaining chip. It could also put further pressure on Syria over its presence in Lebanon.
Peace talks between Israel and Syria are currently frozen. U.S.-mediated talks broke off in January over Israel’s refusal to give Syria assurances it will fully withdraw from the Golan Heights as part of a peace accord.
Despite the freeze, the sides have acknowledged efforts to revive the talks, but officials in Jerusalem, Damascus and Washington over the weekend uniformly denied an Israel Television report of a possible breakthrough on the peace track.
According to the report, a formula had been found for defining the final border on the Golan Heights, which would run between the June 4, 1967 line and the international boundary. Under the formula, Israel would retain control and sovereignty over the Sea of Galilee and Jordan River, in exchange for concessions to the Syrians on El Hama.
The report said there was a chance Barak could present a peace accord with Syria to the government, Knesset and Israeli people within the next three to five weeks, with a national referendum possible before Passover, which begins April 20. However, Barak has repeatedly stressed he has no new information on when talks with Syria might resume.
Barak told the Cabinet on Sunday there were contacts with the Americans, but no direct contacts with the Syrians, to revive negotiations. He was quoted as saying that unless negotiations get under way within two to three months, it will not be possible to conclude an agreement in the next year to 18 months.