News Anlaysis: Israeli offer for Lebanon pullback lifts eyebrows and…

JERUSALEM — If the Israeli government's current Lebanon initiative is a public relations gimmick — as its critics insist — it's working.

The international community and the international media are full of discussions about Israel's desire to withdraw from southern Lebanon.

For the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the focus on the new diplomatic initiative is a welcome change from the usual condemnations of what the world media often refer to as the Jewish state's "expansionist" policies.

Even if the initiative began as an effort to achieve popularity at home and head off debate abroad on more awkward issues — especially the lack of movement with the Palestinians — it could take on real momentum and produce tangible results.

For the moment, it has produced a weird confrontation within the Israeli Cabinet and a palpable sense of concern, even alarm, in Damascus.

Public pressure to withdraw from southern Lebanon, where Israel maintains a security zone to prevent cross-border attacks, has intensified in recent months as the death toll of Israeli soldiers continues to mount.

Israel lost 39 soldiers in the 9-mile-wide zone in 1997. The zone was established in 1985, when Israel withdrew most of its forces in the aftermath of the 1982 Lebanon War.

The internal Israeli debate came to a head this week when two top Cabinet ministers — Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai and National Infrastructure Minister Ariel Sharon — presented competing proposals for withdrawal from southern Lebanon. At the same time, the Labor-led opposition argued that only comprehensive negotiations with Syria could extricate Israel from its bloody and exhausting Lebanese adventure.

Mordechai, considered the leading moderate in Netanyahu's Cabinet, commanded the northern front for five years of his military life. No one knows better than he the price of the deployment of Israeli forces over the border.

Mordechai, in close coordination with the prime minister, is vigorously articulating Israel's readiness to implement U.N. Security Council Resolution 425. The resolution calls on Israel to withdraw its forces and the Lebanese government to assume full control over the turbulent southern part of the country.

The seriousness of Mordechai's plan was further evidenced this week by a meeting he held with Gen. Antoine Lahad, the commander of the Israel-allied South Lebanon Army. Mordechai told reporters he had assured Lahad that the interests of the SLA, made up of Lebanese Christians, would be safeguarded in the event of an Israeli withdrawal.

The new Israeli initiative signals a marked contrast to its long-held policy that the Jewish state's readiness to withdraw depends on a formal negotiation or agreement with Lebanon, or with Lebanon's all-powerful patron, Syria.

Nevertheless, Mordechai and Netanyahu still insist that there must be a linkage between an Israeli pullback and a southern redeployment of the Lebanese army to keep control. In particular, Israel would have to receive assurances that Hezbollah, the militant Shi'ite militia that has become the Israel Defense Force's prime enemy, would be forcibly barred from advancing to the border and from shelling Israel's northern settlements.

Mordechai himself admitted in a Knesset briefing this week that IDF intelligence accepts the basic assumption that without Syrian approval, the Lebanese government would be powerless to enter into any understandings with Israel, however informal.

Top intelligence officers told the committee, moreover, that they do not believe Syrian President Hafez Assad would be willing to relinquish the power he holds over Israel because of his control over Lebanon.

It is against this backdrop that Sharon's unexpected intervention has taken on a life of its own.

The infrastructure minister, in interviews over the weekend, urged a unilateral but phased IDF withdrawal — without reference to either Damascus or Beirut.

The Israel army would begin its pullback, according to Sharon, stopping periodically to test the effect. If there were Hezbollah attacks, either during or after the withdrawal to the international border, Israel would strike back with massive force, not only against the Shi'ite organization itself, but also against broader Lebanese targets.

Sharon's proposal has been roundly attacked by Defense Ministry sources as a non-starter that is bound to damage Mordechai's more practical proposal.

These sources predict that if Sharon's ideas were implemented, Israel would quickly find itself engaged in military operations much larger and more costly than what is currently necessary.

The criticism of Sharon is, of course, unavoidably tied to cynical references to his role as the architect and executor of Israel's ill-fated invasion of Lebanon in June 1982.

For Ehud Barak, the Labor leader, both Mordechai and Sharon are merely looking for popularity at home, where the constant bloodletting in southern Lebanon is becoming increasingly unpopular.

He says that were he prime minister, Israel would be engaged in comprehensive negotiations with Syria over the Golan Heights and southern Lebanon — the only strategy, he believes, that can bring a general peace to the northern border region.

The Syrians, for their part, have clearly been rattled by the Israeli initiative — as evidenced by a series of meetings between Syrian and Lebanese officials over the weekend.

Behind the public professions of unity — and rejection of the Mordechai plan — issued after the meeting, one overriding message was made clear: There will be no separate Lebanese move with Israel, no matter how much Lebanon wants to get Israel out of its territory.

Privately, through diplomatic channels, Syria is telling Netanyahu that it wants to resume the long-suspended negotiations with Israel over the Golan as well as the parallel talks regarding Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon.

But the Syrian condition — that those talks resume at the point that they reached under the Labor-led governments of Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres — remains the obstacle to a resumption.

Negotiations at that time focused on at least some Israeli withdrawal from the Golan in exchange for normalization of relations.

Indeed, in the view of the opposition in Israel and of many observers abroad, it is this intractable condition that has prompted Netanyahu to seek a way around it by reaching out to Lebanon directly and dangling the prospect of an early Israeli withdrawal.

The universal assessment in the political community is that Netanyahu cannot offer sweeping concessions on the Golan and keep his coalition intact. Moreover, he seems to have no desire to offer such concessions.

Sharon, by responding to the growing calls at home for unilateral withdrawal, is seen as trying to outflank Mordechai — and Netanyahu — with his own approach.