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Israel quickly heals its injured pride


JERUSALEM, May 30 (JTA) — If you blinked, you would have missed it.

For a brief moment last week, as its army beat a hasty and undignified retreat from southern Lebanon, Israel seemed to plunge into an abyss of self-deprecation and embarrassment.

But now, the short period of Israel’s international humiliation is over, and everyone is fervently hoping it won’t return — especially the prime minister.

Ehud Barak’s enhanced public standing after the successful Lebanon withdrawal, pundits here say, will enable him to make far-reaching concessions to the Palestinians and brave the political backlash from the right.

With the West Bank quiet now after a period of violence, Barak has reportedly given the green light for a resumption of suspended “back-channel” negotiations between Shlomo Ben-Ami, Israel’s minister of internal security, and Ahmed Karia, the speaker of the Palestinian parliament.

The talks were in Stockholm, but will reportedly move to the Middle East.

The Israeli daily Ha’aretz cited informed Israeli sources as predicting that the two sides will reach a framework for a final peace agreement within weeks. The drafting of the accord, the paper reported, had “passed the point of no return.”

Other media here say the Israeli side is now entertaining proposals for Israel to relinquish 92 percent of the West Bank. Settlement leaders in the Jordan Valley warned Tuesday they would not abandon their homes if Barak hands the region over to the Palestinians.

As the focus shifts back to the Palestinians, the national mood is a far cry from last week, when it appeared to many that the once-invincible Israel Defense Force was coming home with its tail between its legs, whipped by a few hundred determined fighters supported by Syria and equipped by Iran.

Israel’s deterrent credibility had been dealt a serious blow, people said.

This had been exacerbated, for all the world to see, by Israel’s perceived heartless treatment of its allies — the soldiers of the South Lebanon Army. They and their families followed the Israeli troops to the border and begged for asylum in the Jewish state.

Barak’s stock in public opinion plummeted to an all-time low. People talked openly of the imminent collapse of his rickety coalition.

They speculated over whether former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s involvement in a police investigation would be over in time for him to make his comeback and challenge Barak for the premiership.

Twenty-four hours later, on May 24, with the last IDF soldier out — shown on television phoning his worried mom — the atmosphere metamorphosed.

Suddenly it was as though the army had returned from some triumphant feat of arms. People congratulated each other on the streets as though there was a victory to celebrate.

By the weekend, the same Israel that midweek had been on the brink of despair, was vigorously engaged in rejoicing over the end of 22 blood-stained years in Lebanon.

Barak’s name was on everyone’s lips as the genius of strategy and statesmanship. Media columnists were eating their words as fast as they could, and joining in the mass splurge of national gratification.

The Hezbollah? Well, perhaps they would turn to politics, religion and social welfare now, and say farewell to arms.

Deterrence? Israelis rehearsed their prime minister’s somber warnings to Lebanon and Syria to prevent cross-border attacks, or face massive Israeli reprisals against Lebanese infrastructure and Syrian targets inside Lebanon.

The SLA? Granted that was unpleasant. But now Israel was welcoming thousands of them into its midst, providing them with temporary homes, schools for their kids — and liberal cash handouts to assist those wishing to settle abroad.

The conscience qualms aroused by this episode were being eased.

Barak’s stock had never been higher. His instructions to the army to exercise restraint in the face of provocations on the other side of the barbed wire border fence were praised as statesmanlike.

Lone voices on the right muttering about a loss of staying power or of national pride were drowned out in a nationwide cacophony of congratulations.

Wrapping up the Lebanon front, U.N. special envoy Terje Larsen was expected to announce formally that Israel had completed its withdrawal in compliance with Security Council Resolution 425, opening the way for the United Nations to expand its force on the border.

Israeli officials hope that reinforced U.N. peacekeepers will reduce the risk of border incidents that could flare into a conflagration across the whole front.

Meanwhile, the premier was slated to fly to Berlin on Thursday to meet with President Clinton, and separately with Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder of Germany. After receiving their compliments over the success of the withdrawal, he was expected to focus the discussion on the talks with the Palestinians.

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