Troops, cabinet members pressure Barak on Lebanon

JERUSALEM — "We don't want to be the last IDF men to die in Lebanon."

The Israeli public has been churning over those words ever since a group of Israel Defense Force soldiers uttered them to Israeli reporters last week.

But the decision on Israel's future in Lebanon still rests with the country's political leaders, who remain mired in conflict over it.

Prime Minister Ehud Barak, in office for only eight months, is dealing with a big split within his own cabinet.

Several of his cabinet ministers are publicly airing their dissatisfaction with the escalating military situation, which has claimed the lives of seven Israeli soldiers in Lebanon over the past three weeks.

The politicians' murmurings come as Israeli soldiers, too, are voicing their own misgivings about the fighting in Lebanon.

Reserve soldiers have occasionally criticized government policy in the past. Indeed, in the view of many observers, it was a wave of such criticism in the reserve army that prompted Israel's withdrawal in 1984 and 1985 from the heart of Lebanon. Since then, the IDF has occupied a nine-mile-wide security zone in Lebanon to protect Israel's northern communities.

This week, Maj. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, the regional commander in charge of the Lebanon campaign, reportedly called the complaining soldiers a bunch of "crybabies."

The frustration of the army brass undoubtedly reflects the political discomfort Barak must feel reading the headlines about dissident soldiers — to say nothing of the all-too-frequent stories and pictures telling the heartbreaking tales of Sgt. Tzahi Itach, the latest 19-year-old Israeli killed by a Hezbollah anti-tank missile.

Itach's father, Lt.-Col. Arye Itach of the reserves, openly displayed his pain.

"There is no reason why any other boys should fall there," he said. "They are just cannon fodder…I call and plead with him [Barak] in an educated manner, despite the grief and pain I feel now, to pull the troops out of there."

If such public lashing wasn't enough, Barak's problem was compounded this week when it became publicly known that several of his own ministers are balking at his Lebanon policy.

Hardliners such as Interior Minister Natan Sharansky and doves such as Agriculture Minister Chaim Oron are questioning the premier's assertion that he needs until April or May to determine whether to withdraw unilaterally or pull out as part of a negotiated deal with Syria.

Barak has been reiterating his commitment to have the army out of Lebanon, one way or the other, by July 7. But the dissenting ministers say that is too long to keep up the costly exchanges with Hezbollah.

In essence, those ministers tend to agree with Likud leader Ariel Sharon's view that the situation in Lebanon should be divorced from overall peace negotiations with Syria.

While most of his dissenting ministers may not share Sharon's ultimate goal of heading off Israeli-Syrian talks altogether to avert an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, they agree with his opposition to Barak's linkage of a withdrawal from Lebanon and an accord with Syria.

During Sunday's weekly cabinet meeting, Barak got strong support for his strategy from Foreign Minister David Levy and from Education Minister Yossi Sarid.

Even Justice Minister Yossi Beilin, a longtime advocate of a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon, said he was "at one with" the prime minister's efforts to try for a negotiated withdrawal during the weeks ahead — and to stay put for the moment in Lebanon in order to achieve this.

Those ministers backed the premier's grim assertion that the deaths of seven soldiers, however upsetting, must not be allowed to dictate a nation's national security policy.

But the narrow backing he won for his approach on Lebanon must have been little comfort for Barak — given the distinct loss of cabinet solidarity over his entire peace strategy.

In tough one-on-one meetings with Barak over the weekend, a number of key ministers reportedly expressed their deep anxiety over the current deadlock on the Israeli-Palestinian peace track.

Sunday was the date on which Israel and the Palestinian Authority were to have concluded a framework agreement accord for a final peace accord.

The two sides had also planned to reach the final accord by September — that is, before the U.S. presidential election in November so that President Clinton could successfully conclude his work as Middle East peace broker.

Ironically, it was Barak who pressed for that rigid and ambitious timetable, publicly proclaiming the February and September target dates.

Barak has said repeatedly that what he does not achieve on the peace front during his first year in office — with Clinton still in the White House — will be much more difficult to achieve later.

Now that the Feb. 13 deadline has come and gone, the framework agreement is effectively dead — and the Palestinians are speaking of a rupture in Barak's relationship with Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat.

Barak, for his part, barely bothers to conceal his view that Israel's foremost interest is to make a peace deal with Syria and solve the Lebanon debacle.

He has all but stated publicly that if the talks with Syria go forward, the Palestinians can wait.