Israel’s inner cabinet made official what its prime minister and defense minister have been proposing in recent weeks — Israel’s army will conditionally withdraw from southern Lebanon in accordance with a 20-year-old United Nations resolution.
But Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Dore Gold, said the UN has not been asked to play a role in the withdrawal.
“It requires the parties themselves to implement it,” he said, referring to Israel’s insistence that Lebanese troops fill the void left by the pullback in order to protect Israel’s northern border from attacks launched over the years by Shiite Muslim Hezbollah terrorists.
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said last Wednesday during a visit to Jerusalem that such a pullback requires consultations with Lebanon and Syria and that he would be willing to work with all parties once Israel formally adopted a withdrawal resolution. But Gold said such help is not now being sought.
Reaction to the decision from Lebanon continued to be negative. Lebanese President Elia Hrawi said the action was a “trial balloon” and insisted that Israeli troops withdraw unconditionally.
“Lebanon will not negotiate with Israel over the withdrawal,” he told reporters during a visit to the United Arab Emirates.
Gold emphasized in an interview with The Jewish Week that the Israeli action is in full compliance with UN Security Council Resolution 425, which calls for Lebanon to resume full autonomy over what is now Israel’s self-proclaimed security belt. He said that in providing security arrangements in the area, Lebanese forces would have to remove the Hezbollah threat.
The cabinet decision also said that Israel would withdraw contingent upon safeguards being provided for the South Lebanon Army, its proxy militia in southern Lebanon.
This is not the first time Israel has offered to withdraw from Lebanon in return for security along its northern frontier. The first offer was made in 1983, just one year after Israel entered Lebanon to push out PLO terrorists who were similarly launching raids along the Lebanese-Israeli border. Those talks were under UN auspices but failed because of Lebanese unwillingness to assert its control in the area.
Because of that unwillingness, Israel established in 1985 its security belt, a six-mile wide buffer zone patrolled by 1,500 Israeli troops and 2,500 SLA fighters who are armed and trained by Israel.
Security Council Resolution 425 was adopted in 1978 after Israel first entered Lebanon to wipe out Palestinian terrorist bases.
This week’s cabinet decision represents a fundamental change in Israeli policy, which had been that any Israeli withdrawal was contingent upon a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon and that Lebanon first make peace with Israel.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been under increasing pressure to bring the boys home from Lebanon as Israel’s death toll there mounts from continued clashes with Hezbollah terrorists.
The prime minister told reporters after the cabinet vote that this decision reflects his government’s “intention to resolve the Lebanon question once and for all. And we hope that other governments — but especially the government of Lebanon — will heed this call and enter into discussions with us on how to implement it.”
He said the cabinet did not discuss how the withdrawal would be implemented.
“It is not something that happens immediately,” Netanyahu stressed. “It is a process.”
Israel’s minister of infrastructure, Ariel Sharon, has proposed that Israel withdraw unconditionally in stages to see the reaction of Hezbollah forces. Israel would respond forcefully to any terrorist strikes, he said.
The Hezbollah forces are supported by Iran. On Monday, Iran’s foreign minister, Kamal Kharrazi, said Hezbollah would have achieved its goals if Israel withdrew its troops from Lebanon.
Netanyahu’s political adviser, Uzi Arad, termed the comments “interesting” and said they were received with “great interest.”
But Gold said Hezbollah spokesmen have issued conflicting statements in recent days, promising one day to leave and the next to “liberate northern Palestine.”