News Analysis: Cease-fire leaves Peres fate in the hands of fundamentalists

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JERUSALEM — The agreement that brought an end to the fighting on the Israeli-Lebanese border reflects another one of the cruel ironies that seem to bespatter Middle Eastern history.

The military and diplomatic shock waves set in motion by the fighting, on the face of it, should have provided the opportunity for a much broader and more lasting settlement on the border.

But, in the end, the cease-fire agreement brokered by U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher lacked the far-reaching terms necessary to bring permanent quiet.

The governments of Israel and Lebanon have said repeatedly that they support what could have been the basis for such an accord: the withdrawal of Israeli troops from southern Lebanon and the reassertion of full Lebanese sovereignty and control throughout the area, right up to the border fence.

There is no reason to doubt Prime Minister Shimon Peres' commitment to the principle of withdrawal from Lebanon.

Indeed, it represents a consensus position in Israeli politics.

Israel has learned the hard way over the years — the 16-day Operation Grapes of Wrath was another lesson — there's no gain from being embroiled in Lebanon.

On the Lebanese side, there is certainly no reason to doubt that the government of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, deeply committed to reconstructing his country after years of civil war, would like to extend its rule to the southern border.

Despite all the pronouncements from Jerusalem and Beirut, however, it appears that a lasting Israeli-Lebanese settlement, one involving the effective neutralization of Hezbollah as a fighting force, will have to wait for more favorable circumstances.

Instead, the cease-fire agreement, which called on Israel and Hezbollah to avoid targeting civilians but allowed each party to continue "exercising the right of self-defense," was little different from the understandings reached with the assistance of the United States in July 1993, when the last major flare-up occurred.

True, the latest accord calls for a "Monitoring Group" to track violations and a "Consultative Group" to provide financial assistance for the reconstruction in Lebanon.

But the overall shape of the ground rules for what is widely expected to be further Israeli-Hezbollah fighting in southern Lebanon remains the same.

Perhaps it was the imminence of Israel's May 29 elections that prevented the Peres government from exploring the possibility of a longer-term agreement with Lebanon.

Peres could hardly afford to be seen by the voter, or to be depicted by the opposition, as emerging from the military campaign with a withdrawal from Lebanon.

Syria, the true power in Lebanon, is also not interested at this point in a long-term pacification of the Israeli-Lebanese border.

Syrian President Hafez Assad realizes that the nagging, sporadic miniwar in southern Lebanon and, periodically, across the border represents for the Israeli public a weighty argument in favor of concluding a peace treaty with Syria.

There is little enthusiasm in Israel for the idea of handing the strategic Golan Heights back to Syria, even in the context of a full peace.

But the prospect of a quiet border stretching from the Golan across the Israeli-Lebanese frontier all the way to the sea considerably enhances the case among Israelis for conceding the Golan in an eventual land-for-peace deal.

Assad knows this all too well.

This being the strategic situation, the most that Peres and the top brass of the Israel Defense Force would say in their public statements after Saturday's cease-fire were vague references to the Lebanese government's future "role" in the south.

Meanwhile, the conventional wisdom in Israel is that the test of the latest understanding will be whether Hezbollah fires Katyusha rockets at northern Israel between now and election day.

If Hezbollah does not, the Peres government can claim that Operation Grapes of Wrath was a success and will be able to expect electoral dividends from it.

If Hezbollah does fire, the Likud opposition will brand the operation a flop.

Indeed, Yitzhak Mordechai, a leading Likud candidate in the upcoming Knesset elections, said the new understandings add nothing to those reached in 1993.

"The cease-fire agreement won't stand the test of reality," said Mordechai, who recently retired from the army as head of northern command.

"It does not provide additional security for the residents of the north and certainly not for Israeli soldiers fighting in the security zone," he said.

For the time being, the IDF will keep up its constant vigil in southern Lebanon, where, according to most observers, the years-old miniwar with Hezbollah will continue.

For Peres, the way Grapes of Wrath ended means that his electoral fate is now, to a large degree, in the hands of not one, but two militant Islamic groups, each vehemently opposed to the peace process.

Hamas, responsible for the wave of four suicide bombings in February and March, has said repeatedly that it will strike again.

Only last week, in an incident that Israeli police officials said had all the markings of the earlier suicide bombings, a would-be suicide bomber blew himself up by mistake on the outskirts of Jerusalem.

An IDF uniform and a Koran found beside his shattered corpse gave ample hints of his ghoulish plans.

The explosive charge that detonated prematurely would have been powerful enough to tear another bus apart.

Israel's closure of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which remains in place since imposed after the first of the suicide bombings, would probably not have stopped this bomber from getting to Israeli targets in downtown Jerusalem.

Peres says Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's security forces are clamping down hard on the fundamentalists.

Nevertheless, some terror cells are clearly still intact.

Hezbollah demonstrated dramatically — and contemptuously — that it, too, is by no means finished, despite 16 days of IDF pounding.

At 3.58 a.m. Saturday, precisely two minutes before the cease-fire went into effect, Hezbollah lobbed a Katyusha that went straight through the roof of an apartment in Kiryat Shmona, causing extensive damage.

For Israelis, it is chilling to think that either of these fanatical fundamentalist organizations may yet be able to turn the tide of history by directly influencing the outcome of the Israeli elections.

With Israel's pollsters saying that only some 5 to 6 percentage points separate front runner Peres from Likud challenger Benjamin Netanyahu in the race for prime minister, this is a real possibility.