News Analysis: Syrian pressure on Israel via Hezbollah backfires

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JERUSALEM — As American diplomats went to work this week to patch together a cease-fire on the Israeli-Lebanese border, one thing clearly emerged: Syria's use of Hezbollah to pressure Israel into peace negotiations with Damascus has failed.

In their quiet, behind-the-scenes moves, the White House and State Department were taking what was for Israel a gratifyingly slow pace.

While Israeli planes, helicopters and artillery continued to pound Hezbollah targets in Lebanon, the Clinton administration made it clear to the rest of the world that this time Washington stands squarely behind the Israelis.

Even ghastly television footage of Lebanese civilian casualties caused by Israeli fire did not sway the administration from its firm line.

Prime Minister Shimon Peres, running Operation Grapes of Wrath with brisk vigor, explained why.

Washington, he said, had tried for weeks at Israel's urgent request to persuade Syria to exert restraint on Hezbollah. But the American diplomacy failed and the Shiite fundamentalist organization's sporadic firing of Katyusha rockets on northern Israel persisted.

It was only when policymakers in Jerusalem and Washington concluded that their tactics were leading nowhere that Peres gave the military the order to act.

The current conflict reflects, in the view of seasoned observers, a cynical relationship of mutual exploitation between Syria and Hezbollah.

The flareup occurred, not at all coincidentally, during a suspension in the long and frustrating Israeli-Syrian peace talks.

After the series of Hamas suicide bombings in Israel in February and March, Peres pulled his delegates out of the peace talks in Washington.

He then refused to send them back until the government in Damascus condemned the Hamas terror killings, and expressed compassion for the innocent victims and their families.

That position is widely supported by the Israeli public.

In the meantime, some cynical political pundits suggested the suspension of the Israeli-Syrian talks was convenient for Peres in the current pre-election period. The prospect of making concessions on the Golan Heights — a key Syrian demand in the negotiations — has been controversial, even frightening, for many Israelis, including some in the Labor camp.

It is much better, then, from Labor's perspective, for the Israeli-Syrian track to lie fallow in the coming months.

Syria, as so often during the past years of on-again, off-again negotiations, responded by giving the nod to Hezbollah to step up its strikes against Israel.

And Hezbollah gladly obliged: Its escalating pressure on Israel included a March 20 suicide bombing of an Israeli unit in southern Lebanon that killed one Israeli soldier; a March 30 Katyusha attack on the Galilee panhandle; and an April 9 Katyusha assault that prompted the massive Israeli air, land and sea operation in Lebanon.

Israeli experts seem unanimous in their view that even though Hezbollah is funded and controlled from Tehran, its ability to operate in southern Lebanon is directly determined by Damascus.

At Syrian President Hafez Assad's will, Hezbollah's gunmen unleash their Katyusha rockets and plant their roadside bombs. And at his command, they can be forced to stop.

Assad believes that painful pinpricks from Hezbollah can push Israel back to the negotiating table — without Syria's having to pay any price, even in the form of a condemnation of the Hamas suicide bombings.

Hezbollah, for its part, has been only too pleased to give its gunmen their marching orders whenever a green light from the Syrians is available.

Its basic motivation is rooted in religious fundamentalism, which dictates an implacable hatred of "the Zionist entity."

But there also are pragmatic calculations at work.

Sensing that sooner or later an Israeli-Syrian deal will be worked out that will provide in part for a complete pacification of the Israeli-Lebanese border, Hezbollah is anxious that its military activism be perceived as a major contributing factor in Israel's eventual withdrawal from southern Lebanon.

The organization may well feel, in the view of some experts here, that its future existence as a political force within Lebanon is conditional upon its being able to proclaim itself the liberator of the south from the long Israeli occupation in its security zone.

Israel does not delude itself into thinking that Operation Grapes of Wrath, however impressive the firepower unleashed, can destroy or even disarm Hezbollah.

The fundamentalism Hezbollah represents is a potent force within Lebanon's large Shiite community, and the supply of hardware from Iran is virtually continuous unless Syria makes a strategic decision to stop it.

Such a decision might be possible in the context of a comprehensive peace agreement. But it is not realistically available in the current situation.

Israel's tactics, then, are to hurt Hezbollah while pressuring the Beirut government by creating a massive though temporary flight of Lebanese refugees from the Israeli onslaught.

Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, consumed both politically and personally in the massive task of rebuilding war-ravaged Beirut, could only look on impotently as the dust of explosions mingled with the dust of his vast construction projects.

In a circular and quintessentially Middle Eastern process of vicarious pressure, al-Hariri's plight will, it is hoped in Israel, persuade the Syrians to pull at Hezbollah's leash.

After Israel's last major military operation in southern Lebanon, in July 1993, the U.S.-brokered cease-fire included an understanding that Israel and Hezbollah would contain their confrontation within Israel's self-declared security zone in southern Lebanon.

That understanding forbade Israel to fire at civilian villages in Lebanon and ruled out Hezbollah rocket attacks on northern Israel.

The implication was that an infringement by Israel could legitimately provoke a Hezbollah Katyusha attack across the border.

This time, say Peres and his ministers, any understandings that American diplomats eventually work out with all the parties will flatly bar Hezbollah from firing Katyushas across the border under any circumstances.

In exchange for a commitment from Beirut to maintain peace in southern Lebanon, Israel would agree to begin holding discussions about withdrawing its forces from its security zone.

The proposal also reportedly calls for Israel to stop its current military operation in Lebanon.

But it would maintain the option of responding should Hezbollah resume its rocket attacks on northern Israel.

Syria also would be involved as a guarantor of the Lebanese side of the agreement, according to reports.

Israeli officials were confident this week that if U.S. support remained firmly behind Jerusalem, they could obtain those new and improved ground rules.