Israel lays groundwork for withdrawal from Lebanon

JERUSALEM — If there was any remaining uncertainty, Israel made it clear this week that it is planning to proceed with a withdrawal of its forces from southern Lebanon.

Prime Minister Ehud Barak conveyed the message clearly to visiting U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen, and Foreign Minister David Levy traveled to Geneva to convey the same message to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

The deadline for a withdrawal is still July 7, but the actual date may come even sooner as Barak gives up any lingering hope of a comprehensive agreement with Syria.

Barak pledged in his election campaign last year to withdraw Israeli troops from southern Lebanon by July, with or without a comprehensive peace agreement with Syria.

Now, apparently, the "with" option has evaporated and only the "without" scenario remains.

The Israeli premier, badly hurt politically by Syria's recent rejection of his peace proposal, must now deliver on the Lebanon withdrawal — or he will lose his remaining credibility with the Israeli public.

"We will pull back to the border out of our interests, and we will defend Israel and its interests from within our borders. We don't have a claim on a single square mile of Lebanese territory," Barak said.

"I don't think there's an immediate danger of any sort of conflagration," he added. "We are deploying on the border and we will know how to defend ourselves. Israel is the strongest country in the region, and I doubt whether any party would want or dare consider taking us on militarily today."

To Egypt and other moderate Arab states, Barak's motives and intentions blend comfortably into their broader strategy.

After all, as the Egyptians have publicly pointed out, it is patently illogical for the Arabs to oppose what they have always demanded: Israel's withdrawal from sovereign Arab soil.

The United States, which had asked Israel to slow its diplomatic preparations for the withdrawal, now seems to be agreeing with Levy's overture to the international community.

Just the same, as Cohen made clear in Tel Aviv on Monday, the United States will not deploy troops in southern Lebanon as part of an international peacekeeping force following the Israeli withdrawal.

Meanwhile, Syrian President Hafez Assad's flat rejection of Israel's peace proposals, which President Clinton personally conveyed to the Syrian leader in Geneva, was greeted with incredulity both in Jerusalem and in Washington.

Syria is demanding a full return of the Golan Heights to the boundary that existed before the 1967 Six-Day War — that is, including the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee.

Barak and other Israeli officials have pointed to the 1923 international border carved out by Britain and France, which did not give the Syrians any presence on the Galilee. Clinton implicitly endorsed Barak's offer to Assad.

Syria rejected the offer — and it is now opposing Israel's plans for a unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon.

Syria has long used Hezbollah gunmen in southern Lebanon as a proxy, giving them the green light to step up attacks on Israeli troops to try to force Israeli concessions — particularly on the Golan.

A unilateral withdrawal of Israeli troops from Lebanon would deprive Assad of this leverage.

According to several analysts, Syria also opposes the withdrawal because it would throw a harsh spotlight on its own continued presence in Lebanon, where it maintains some 35,000 troops.

An Israeli withdrawal, these analysts say, could increase pressure on Syria to leave, too.

Whatever their thinking, Syrian and Lebanese officials are now resorting to threats in order to deter Barak from his course.

The latest of these came over the weekend, when the Lebanese defense minister announced that if Israel leaves, the Syrian army might deploy along the Israeli-Lebanese border.

For 24 years, ever since Syria's first incursion into Lebanon in 1976, Damascus has been careful not to move its troops south of Sidon under an unwritten agreement with Israel.

If it did so now, it would raise tensions between the two countries.

Syria itself was quick this week to dissociate itself from the Lebanese minister's assertion.

For its part, Israel was slow to react officially, deliberately giving Damascus time to defuse the potential bombshell.

On that level, at least, the two sparring partners still read each other clearly — and understand their common interests.

But the danger of armed exchanges, which could quickly escalate to draw in the Syrians, will still be present following an Israeli withdrawal.

Hezbollah gunmen or Palestinian groups that oppose the Oslo peace process, attacking across the border, could trigger massive Israeli retaliations against Lebanon.

Given the high concentration of Syrian troops, civilians and economic interests on Lebanese soil, a confrontation between Israel and Syria could well occur.

Barak insists that a strong Israel continues to be a stabilizing factor in the Middle East, because it encourages moderate regimes in the region.

"It makes the deployment against rogue states more probable," he said. "It contributes to slowing down the run toward nuclear capabilities and missile technologies and it makes the overall deployment of the free world in this region against these threats much more effective and stable."