This was to have been the weekend Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak was to meet with Palestinian President Yasir Arafat to sign the framework of a peace treaty. Instead, it was a week that saw Palestinians break off further peace talks and that found Barak in northern Israeli bomb shelters, commiserating with Israelis ordered there for fear of a Hezbollah rocket attack from Lebanon.
The war of attrition between Israeli forces and Hezbollah terrorists in Israel’s nine-mile wide security belt in southern Lebanon flared two weeks ago after Hezbollah forces killed an Israeli soldier. Three more Israeli soldiers were killed in another attack just a week later, and two more Israeli soldiers were killed in separate attacks this week. The six deaths have prompted an outcry from the Israeli public, with some demanding that Israel strike back hard and others saying it is time to pull out.
Barak made a campaign promise last year to withdraw all troops by July, and his staff hinted this week that he may advance that timetable. One senior Israeli official said that if opposition Likud Party leader Ariel Sharon agreed to such a move, Barak was prepared to order a pullback sooner rather than later.
“Barak is concerned that [Syrian President Hafez] Assad would perceive him as weak,” said the official. “But in the end, Barak may have no choice because of public sentiment. This is like Saigon; there is total disgust with what is going on in Lebanon. Israeli TV stations normally don’t show pictures of our boys cut up and dying. But this week they did. That tells you a little bit about the mood in Israel.”
But were Israeli troops to withdraw from Lebanon without a peace treaty with Syria in hand, Israeli security officers believe Hezbollah would attack civilian cities in northern Israel, according to a former U.S. ambassador to Syria, Richard Murphy.
“The military people are not happy with a unilateral withdrawal,” he observed. “They would be happy with an agreement underpinning it.”
In the meantime, Barak sent his warplanes deep into Lebanon Monday night to destroy what was described as an Hezbollah stronghold and three major power stations around Beirut — leaving much of Lebanon in darkness. It was the largest Israeli operation in Lebanon in eight months and Israel said it was conducted at night on infrastructure targets to minimize the risk of civilian casualties. When Hezbollah retaliated Tuesday by attacking and killing the sixth Israeli soldier in two weeks, Israeli planes and helicopter gunships launched attacks on three targets Tuesday night — a Hezbollah radar base in Tyre and two Hezbollah compounds in a village in Bekaa, an area that is controlled by Syrian troops.
With Hezbollah promising to bomb Israeli civilians in northern Israeli cities in return, the Israeli government Tuesday declared a state of emergency in the north and ordered all 300,000 residents into underground bomb shelters for at least 48 hours. Most, however, chose to leave.
Analysts agree that what happens next could well determine the fate of the stalled Israeli-Syrian peace talks for the immediate future.
“If Hezbollah retaliates by attacking the north of Israel and there are civilian casualties, the fighting will continue,” said Yossi Olmert, a former adviser to Prime Minister Yitzchak Shamir and an expert on terrorism, Syria and the Middle East peace process. “If it is a minor attack, we can go on [with the peace process]. If people are killed, we’re in deep trouble. … It’s a touch-and-go situation for both of them [Assad and Barak] at this time.”
Although Hezbollah receives ideological and financial support from Iran, Olmert said “Syria is behind all of the troubles in Lebanon. Syria is the country that runs and supervises Hezbollah. It has always used the Lebanon situation to put pressure on Israel, and what has been going on these last few days is no exception.”
The Israeli official noted that the Hezbollah offensive “was not just a lucky shot. It was the result of careful planning. They had been setting up the infrastructure for these attacks for months.”
If he was advising Barak, Olmert said, he would suggest that Israeli military strikes be measured so as not to “exacerbate the situation unnecessarily. It would have to be done in a way to teach Assad a lesson.”
In striking at Hezbollah targets in an area controlled by Syria, Israeli officials said warplanes were careful to make sure that no Syrians were harmed. In that way, Assad would surely get the message but Barak would leave the door open to resuming peace talks.
During his tour of the north Tuesday, Barak said: “It is not our intention to hurt civilians or to close the door on the opportunity to continue the peace process.”
Some observers said they believed Syria ordered the Hezbollah attacks to pressure Barak to reaffirm his earlier commitment to withdraw from the Golan Heights up to the June 4, 1967 border, as Assad has demanded.
But Murphy, who is now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said he does not believe that scenario because although “Syria has a great influence over Hezbollah, it does not have total control. Hezbollah has developed some degree of independence.”
However, Murphy said, were Syria to prevent Iranian supplies from traveling through Damascus and into Lebanon, “Hezbollah would wither on the vine.” And should there be Israeli-Syrian and Israeli-Lebanese peace treaties, “Hezbollah will become a dead duck” as a military force.
For Syria to return to the peace talks, Assad reportedly is demanding a commitment in writing from Barak that he will return Israel to its June 4, 1967 northern border with Syria. Barak and his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, both knew of that demand as the price for peace with Syria, said Murphy. But Barak has been insisting on resolving such issues as security arrangements on the Golan Heights before making such a commitment, he said.
Barak might have a little wiggle room because no one knows the precise border in June 1967, Murphy pointed out. Each side could draw up its own maps and negotiate a border. In that way Barak would be able to tell the Israeli public that he negotiated a new border and Assad could claim it was the 1967 border.
As both sides braced for a further escalation of attacks — which were roundly denounced by the international community — Secretary of State Madeleine Albright contacted Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Sharaa and asked him to rein in Hezbollah. She reportedly was also conveying messages from Barak that he was prepared to come back to the negotiating table.
Meanwhile, Arafat told three Knesset members from Barak’s One Israel Party Tuesday that Palestinians on the street were becoming impatient with the lack of progress towards an Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty. The Jerusalem Post reported that Arafat said he had expected Barak to have included in the latest Israeli troop withdrawal several Palestinian villages and towns that were linked by more than just roads. Arafat rejected the maps last week, saying the Israelis should have consulted him before drawing them up. On Monday, he suspended further talks.
Henry Siegman, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said he had felt from the start that Barak was not according the Palestinian talks “the importance they require. I believe Barak sees Syria as more important, and that he can mark time with the Palestinians.”
He said Barak started off on the wrong foot by seeking to change the Wye accord negotiated by Arafat and Netanyahu in November 1998. Siegman said the Palestinians were asked to “give back without gaining anything.” And that move cost him the “confidence and credibility he needs to close the deal. Now that is coming back to haunt him.”
A Palestinian peace treaty, Siegman said, can only be cut when Barak understands that the most important thing for the Palestinians is that they “end up with a state that has viability. Any proposal that suggests a state that cannot be viable politically and economically is something that Arafat cannot accept and survive politically. It is something that he should not accept. And if it is not viable, Israel has not profited. It will end up with an unstable neighbor that will cause Israel endless grief in the days to come.”
Siegman said Barak must “stop patronizing the Palestinians, which for starters means that you can’t dangle certain things” in front of them, such as Abu Dis, a city just outside of Jerusalem where the Palestinians are already building what may become their parliament. Before Barak presented Arafat with the latest maps of a 6.1 percent troop withdrawal from the territories, Israeli officials suggested that Abu Dis might be one of the areas returned. It was not.
“When you trigger certain expectations and then walk away from it, you make the other side look like fools,” said Siegman.