Monday, March 6, 2000

Letter from Jerusalem

I fear that yesterday’s Israeli cabinet decision to withdraw from Lebanon by July of this year is not an occasion for too much rejoicing. First of all, attention should be drawn to the very clear ‘escape’ clause that calls for the reexamination of the withdrawal in a few months should it become clear that there is no chance for an agreement with the Arab side. Moreover, the deep concern regarding the Israeli decision stems from the relation between that decision and the stalemate in the Israeli-Syrian peace talks.

In plain language, Israel is promising (or threatening) to leave Lebanon unilaterally in July, if no agreement reached on the Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations.Well what’s wrong with that? Why should we have cause for concern when the Israeli government plans to implement what has been for years a clear and consistent demand by the more militant sections of the Israeli peace movement? It is true that the left has been calling for a unilateral retreat from Lebanon for years. So what is the problem? Is it our habitual, irrational reflex to find fault with any and all decisions of the Israeli government?

The difficulty is that all serious commentators here in Israel see the Barak gambit as a form of Israeli military pressure on Damascus. Official Israeli propaganda insists that Lebanon is responsible for Hezbolla activity, but goes on to argue that anything and everything, including Hezbollah activity, that happens in Lebanon is subject to Syrian control and dictation. Thus, if tension of any sort continues after the withdrawal, Israel will reply militarily against Lebanon. This was the signal sent by the recent Israeli bombardment of Beirut.

The immediate reason for the portended withdrawal is no less ominous. Lebanon is widely seen here as Israel’s Vietnam. The relevant aspect here is that Israel, like its NATO mentors has decided that it cannot afford the domestic costs of land war in Southern Lebanon. The aversion for land fighting has not changed NATO policy for the better or convinced the United States and its closest allies to renounce of de-emphasize force in international relations. The solution is the adoption of high technology warfare. Israel has had enough of the face to face, high-casualty combat with the Hezbollah in the mountains and the valleys of Southern Lebanon. For Israelis it is a war of little glory and excessive pain. The solution is to fight Hezbollah by deciding to leave Lebanon and then to hold Lebanon responsible for quiet on the border. Should Lebanon fail in this mission to reign in Hezbollah, Israeli bombs over Beirut will convince it to “try harder.”

It is, of course, unclear as to how Hezbollah will use its new set of options. It will certainly enjoy tremendous prestige as the force that finally evicted the Israelis. It may, justly or not, consider the withdrawal as partial; it may, on the basis of its own ideological and political strategy, decide to continue or discontinue the confrontation with the IDF. At any rate, it has not made any binding commitments.

Should tension continue in Southern Lebanon, Lebanon will face the choice between policing the Hezbollah or suffering from massive Israeli retaliation against the Lebanese ‘infrastructure.’ Syria would be seriously humiliated, if its deep links with Lebanon prove to be helpless in the face of Israeli smart bombs. Thus, according to Israeli military thinking, if Lebanon cannot restrain Hezbollah, Damascus will either have to pacify Hezbollah or face an inevitable rise in tension between Israel and Syria. No one can pretend to make accurate and exact predictions on future developments here, but the logic of the present dangers is clear. If the peace talks with Syria do not reconvene and end in an agreement, then the arrow points to increased tension and danger of war. The Palestinian track remains paralyzed. The Israeli government claims that the Palestinians are throwing a tantrum to pressure Israel into concessions that were never agreed on. The Palestinians have a convincing list of unfulfilled Israeli commitments. There are more and more signs of frustration and despair among the Palestinians. Barak and Arafat have at least this in common. Both of their approval rates are plummeting.