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Douglas M. Bloomfield: Time for Israel to Leave Lebanon?

Reader Response

Small World
January 1, 1998 / 3 Tevet, 5758

Is it time to leave Lebanon?

By Douglas M. Bloomfield

OFFICIALS IN WASHINGTON, echoing the growing debate in Israel, are increasingly considering the advantages of a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon.

Lebanon has been a "catastrophe" for Israel and the only things keeping the IDF there are "inertia and pride, not strategy," said a veteran American diplomat who spoke only on background because of the sensitivity of the issue for Washington.

"Their presence there is quite ineffective in protecting against Katyusha attacks because they don't have enough forces there and they can't occupy the whole country," he said in an interview.

Israel has occupied a "security zone" in southern Lebanon since 1978, but a growing number of Israelis -- politicians, military authorities and parents of at-risk soldiers -- now say that its security would be better served by withdrawing entirely.

Calls for a new Lebanon policy are coming from leaders as diverse as Yossi Beilin, former deputy foreign minister and a prominent Labor Party dove, and Infrastructure Minister Ariel Sharon, the hawkish former general who was architect of Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

Their prescriptions range from unilateral withdrawal to reduced ground engagement in favor of stepped-up air and artillery attacks, to a major military assault on the Iranian-backed Hezbollah forces in Southern Lebanon. Hezbollah has grown stronger and more deadly in the last couple of years, and the number of Israeli casualties has grown steadily, but Israel's northern communities do not feel any safer.

"They've lost scores of soldiers, they've gained nothing, and they've provided pretext and maybe even genuine rationale for Hezbollah bombing of northern settlements," said the U.S. Mideast expert.

Thirty-eight Israel soldiers have been killed in Lebanon just this year and another 73 died in the collision of two helicopters en route there last February.

Advocates of unilateral withdrawal can be found across the political spectrum and include Knesset members from Likud, Labor, Shas, Third Way and Meretz -- although not among the top leaders of the two major parties.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said any withdrawal from Lebanon must be part of an agreement with Syria; a unilateral move would put Hezbollah right up to Israel's border and extend its reach into the Galilee.

Labor Party leader and former IDF Chief of Staff Ehud Barak agrees; he has terms a unilateral move irresponsible. Another former general, Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai, said it would be an invitation for attacks by Hezbollah.

That view appeared to be confirmed last week when, according to the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot, Syrian Vice President Abed El Halim Hadam told an Arab Knesset member, Azmi Bishara, that even if Israel withdraws unilaterally from the security zone, "There would not be quiet for Israel from the direction of Lebanon" until there is a settlement with Syria and Lebanon.

American officials agree Israel should not leave until it has some "understanding" with the Government of Lebanon because of the enormous dangers posed by any unilateral withdrawal.

They say that if Hezbollah continued its attacks after a pullout, Israel would have the option to retaliate with air power, artillery or go back in with armor and infantry.

And, they add, the rationale behind the Hezbollah movement would be weakened if Israel withdrew, and that could have the impact the continued Israeli military presence has not had.

The American diplomatic source recommended that the Israelis "have some serious talks, directly or indirectly," with the Beirut government, saying, "look, we're leaving your country and we expect you to move your army in there and perform your duty which maintains security in South Lebanon. It's your job, not ours."

Lebanese armed forces should be deployed in the area to maintain law and order, supplemented by a much expanded United Nations force (UNIFIL). "The UN is now bottled up in an enclave which is very porous and does not provide the kind of buffer Israel needs," he said. "A larger, more effective UNIFIL force with stronger rules of engagement would be the best solution to provide the kind of assurance and protection that is needed." He compared it to the situation on the Golan Heights, which, he added, "works quite well."

Hezbollah would have no excuse for keeping the Lebanese army out of the area if Israel left, officials here believe. They contend the Lebanese government would want to move its forces in to replace the Israelis, but they concede it will need the approval of Syria and possibly Iran, Hezbollah's patron. Lebanon, they believe, is "too weak" to act on its own and wants to avoid a civil war with Hezbollah.

Proponents of unilateral withdrawal underplay the high cost of an Israeli return if their strategy fails. It is naive to expect Hezbollah and Syria will not take advantage of an Israeli exit just as it is to believe that Lebanon would or could agree to any arrangement without full Syrian backing, and Damascus is unlikely to agree to giving Israel a quiet border without achieving its own political goals elsewhere, particularly in the Golan.

Syrian President Hafez Assad may not be all that pleased to see Israel pull out. He is happy as long as he can ratchet up or down Hezbollah attacks on Israelis to suit his needs, but if Israel exits, the Iranian-backed organization could well turn its attention to establishing an Islamic Republic in Lebanon and that would turn an asset into a liability for the secular nationalist regime in Damascus.

Israel could also encounter problems with its Lebanese Christian allies, who have threatened that if abandoned without ironclad guarantees of protection they could turn on their former patrons to the south.

The Christians rightly worry how safe they will be under the rule of the Moslem-dominated Beirut government after nearly two decades under the Israeli umbrella.

The bottom line is any Israeli agreement with Lebanon -- even one for a limited withdrawal -- will have to await a settlement with Syria, which calls the shots in Beirut, and the approval of Iran, which has its own agenda.


Douglas M. Bloomfield is JWR's Washington correspondent.

©1998, Douglas M. Bloomfield