Israel Should Unilaterally Withdraw From Lebanon
The violent flare-up across the Israeli-Lebanese border between the Irani-Syrian backed Party of God (Hizbullah) and Israeli forces, during the first half of February, may provide the impetus for a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon with or without Syrian agreement.
The violence which has resulted in the death of seven Israeli soldiers and culminated in the Israeli bombing of three Lebanese power stations that blackened half of Lebanon, has introduced unintended new elements into the Israeli-Syrian-Lebanese equation. Prime Minister Barak, who has been hesitant to withdraw Israeli forces without an agreement on the Golan with Syria, is now under intense public pressure to do so even earlier than July–the time he had initially established. Syria's President Assad, who has unleashed Hizbullah to harass the Israelis and pressure Barak to concede the Golan prior to the resumption of negotiations, may have overplayed his hand. He could soon be faced with Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon as a fait accompli, thereby losing the Lebanese card, or have to agree to renewed talks without preconditions. The Lebanese authorities have been reminded of their powerlessness to prevent Lebanon from being the battlefield where Israel and Syria's wills are contested. And Hizbullah could soon find itself as a resistance movement without a cause, struggling to prove itself as a viable political organization capable of handling the socio-economic needs of its followers.
To bring about a dramatic change in the Israeli-Syrian-Lebanese and Hizbullah equation, Barak will have to act now, and act decisively, while riding a wave of overwhelming Israeli public support for an early withdrawal from southern Lebanon. Here is why:
1) More than any time before, there is a clear majority of Israelis who support unilateral withdrawal. The death of seven Israeli soldiers raised the question of who, in fact, is being protected by the so called "security zone." It is ironic that there are still many right-wing and cynical members of the Israeli Keneset who argue against withdrawal suggesting that evacuation of the security zone will leave Israelis in the north vulnerable to Hizbullah's attacks. Unfortunately, the disingenuousness of these individuals is surpassed only by their preoccupation with a dead-end policy. Hizbullah has been able to attack Israeli settlements and townships from several miles north of the security zone and can continue to do so at will. If anything, the security zone has provided Hizbullah with an excuse to attack Israeli forces in the name of resistance to occupation, and usurped from the Israelis the moral right to retaliate.
2) The security zone has offered Israel no strategic value, no security guarantees and no peace of mind. In fact, it has been the killing field of Israelis. Since 1985, more than 250 Israeli soldiers have been killed and three times as many injured–in the name of a strategy that has never worked for the Israelis but has served well the Syrians and their surrogate, Hizbullah.
3) For 18 years, successive Labor and Likud governments have held onto this defunct idea that defies logic. The entire Middle East has been transformed: In addition to a peace treaty with Egypt, Israel has established peace with Jordan, is on the road to a peace agreement with the Palestinians, and is engaged, albeit acrimoniously, in a peace process with Syria. Moreover, Israel has emerged as the most formidable military power in the region, with an economy larger than the combined economies of its Arab neighbors. The Soviet Union no longer exists, but Israel's security zone in southern Lebanon continues to persist. Since Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon and the Golan is inevitable, it is time for Barak to take the initiative and prevent Assad from practicing his well known policy of shooting while negotiating.
First, Barak should announce Israel's intention to withdraw from southern Lebanon by mid to late April. This Israeli commitment should be deposited with the United States and the United Nation Security Council (UNSC). If Syria decides in the interim to resume negotiations, the Israeli evacuation of southern Lebanon should proceed as planned.
Second, once such a commitment to withdraw is made, Barak should no longer adhere to the April 1996 "understanding" between Israel and Hizbullah not to target civilians or initiate attacks from civilian locations against one another. In addition, the Grapes of Wrath committee, comprised of representatives from the United States, France, Syria, Lebanon and Israel to monitor compliance by Israel and Hizbullah, should be dissolved. Since the evacuation of southern Lebanon has always been the expressed goal of Syria, Lebanon and Hizbullah, there should be no needs for further monitoring.
Third, Israel should make it abundantly clear to the UNSC, Hizbullah, Lebanon and Syria that any provocation during and following its withdrawal will be met with swift and devastating retaliation. It should also be emphasized that Israel will deliberately choose targets that cause the greatest disruption to commerce, communication and military installations including infrastructure such as bridges, roads, refineries and power plants.
Only perfect clarity as to Israel's position and response to provocations can prevent senseless violence and counter-violence. A bold, clear approach from Barak may very well create a new dynamic for the resumption of peace negotiations between Israel and Syria, or else reveal Assad's true intentions. In either case, Israel is strong enough to take a limited risk by evacuating southern Lebanon. I am not sure that Assad feels as secure to risk a confrontation with Israel.