Israel to vacate Lebanon regardless of Syria

JERUSALEM — The Israeli cabinet this week unanimously endorsed a decision to pull Israeli troops out of southern Lebanon by July, hinting this could be done without an agreement with Syria.

Syria and Lebanon, however, were anything but pleased with the announcement.

Following Sunday's cabinet session, Prime Minister Ehud Barak made an impassioned speech on Israel Television.

After 18 years, he said, "it is the end of the tragedy. It is the return of the boys home and the end of bleeding in Lebanon."

Barak said that Israel preferred the troop redeployment take place as part of an arrangement with Syria. But if it becomes evident that a deal with Syria — the main power broker in Lebanon — is not in the offing, "the cabinet will convene to discuss how to implement the decision."

Lebanon, however, warned Israel this week that it would not gain peace by withdrawing from southern Lebanon until it also returned the Golan Heights to Syria.

In the bluntest warning from Damascus or Beirut since Sunday's cabinet vote, Lebanese Information Minister Anwar Khalil said the retreat had to be part of a comprehensive agreement before it would mean security for northern Israel.

"Either it is a comprehensive, just and lasting peace, or it will not be peace at all," Khalil told Reuters, emphasizing that Lebanon would give no guarantee of peace to Israel until Syrian demands for the Golan are satisfied.

Khalil added that it would be impossible to restrain those fighting for Arab land and rights.

Asked if that meant there would be no peace for northern Israel until Israel returns the Golan Heights, Khalil replied: "Obviously. This is what I believe, this is what everyone who is familiar with the situation in Lebanon believes, and this is definitely the position of the Lebanese government."

Khalil spoke after comments from both capitals welcomed the idea of an Israeli withdrawal after 18 years in Lebanon but expressed fears it would undermine a broader peace.

"The Israeli government's decision setting a date for withdrawal from south Lebanon has created a new wave of question marks and doubts over Israel's seriousness to build real peace in the region," said Syria's official Tishrin newspaper.

Meanwhile, the fate of the South Lebanese Army remains up in the air.

On Monday, Barak reiterated his promise to honor obligations to protect the SLA. The same day, Israel's Supreme Court rejected a second petition to immediately grant to all 2,500 SLA members and their families citizenship, asylum or a promise that when Israel withdraws from Lebanon, it will let them enter Israel.

SLA Commander Gen. Antoine Lahad met with Israel's coordinator on Lebanon, Uri Lubrani, on Monday amid growing concerns among SLA members and the nearly 20,000 residents of the security zone about their future.

Some experts have warned that unless arrangements are made now to ensure the safety and welfare of the SLA troops, their families, and those who have worked with the IDF in the zone, some might try to take out their own insurance policies by defecting to Hezbollah or even actively taking up arms against Israel.