Israelis asking: Is Lebanon their Vietnam

JERUSALEM — The long-standing debate about Israel's military presence in southern Lebanon is being renewed.

In an effort to arrive at some consensus, conservative and liberal Knesset members joined former senior security members for a weekend meeting to discuss options for Israeli policy in Lebanon.

The options included calling for a unilateral Israeli troop withdrawal from the security zone not connected to a peace agreement with Syria or Lebanon, according to some of the meeting's participants.

The meeting came days after 73 Israeli soldiers and crew died in a crash between two helicopters that were transporting troops to southern Lebanon.

But Labor Knesset member Yossi Beilin, one of the meeting's organizers, stressed after the more than three-hour brainstorming session that it had been scheduled about a week prior to the Feb. 4 mid-air helicopter collision over northern Israel.

Israel has maintained troops in the 9-mile-wide security zone since 1985 to serve as a buffer for northern communities against attacks by Hezbollah and other groups.

But a number of politicians have long argued that the zone does not fulfill this defensive objective.

At the same time, they add, the Israel Defense Force is sustaining mounting casualties in the ongoing hostilities with Hezbollah gunmen operating in southern Lebanon.

On Sunday, seven Israeli soldiers were wounded in the security zone in a clash with Hezbollah militants. In retaliation, Israeli jets attacked suspected Hezbollah targets.

More than 200 IDF soldiers have reportedly been killed since 1985 in southern Lebanon, which Israeli journalists have compared to the American quagmire in Vietnam.

Beilin, along with co-organizer Gideon Ezra, a Likud Knesset member and former deputy director of the Shin Bet, have previously called for an Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon.

They maintain that the current strategy has not significantly improved security for Israel's northern settlements, which have come under repeated Hezbollah rocket assaults.

Last week, as Israel was burying the dead from the worst military air disaster in the country's history, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he would continue the Israeli presence in Lebanon.

His public security minister, Avigdor Kahalani, recently drew sharp criticism for calling Israeli troops serving there "sitting ducks."

Kahalani, a member of the Third Way Party, proposed a phased Israeli troop withdrawal on condition that some international force replace them in the security zone.

Another participant in the weekend meeting was Yossi Ginossar, a former top official with the Mossad, Israel's foreign intelligence service.

He later said that the purpose of the meeting was to raise ideas, not necessarily to endorse one particular proposal.

"This was a forum for an exchange of information," he told Israel Radio.

Meretz Party leader Yossi Sarid said he supported the meeting's goals, though he did not participate.

Sarid, who opposes a unilateral Israeli pullback, has proposed stationing a pan-Arab force in southern Lebanon, including troops from Jordan, Egypt and Morocco.

"The Arab forces will be motivated to prove that they can do the job better than anyone else."

Uri Lubrani, the coordinator of Israeli activities in Lebanon, dismissed the proposal for a unilateral withdrawal.

"There is no alternative to allow us to withdraw unilaterally without political dialogue and security arrangements to ensure the security of northern settlements," he told Israel Radio.

A number of coalition and opposition members protested the meeting, saying that it was inappropriate to hold the discussion during the mourning period for last week's victims of the helicopter crash.