Border Now Flashpoint As Talks Hang In Balance
Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon could be a land mine right in the middle of the potholed road to an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, and the spark that could ignite a new Syrian-Israeli military conflagration.
That’s the view of some Clinton administration officials, despite their strong support for Israel’s unilateral action ending its 18-year occupation of the security zone in Southern Lebanon.
“People are holding their breath here — hoping it will be a positive move, but not really sure,” said Jess Hordes, Washington director for the Anti-Defamation League. “There’s a lot of support for what Israel did, but a lot of uncertainty.”
An administration official called the Israeli move a “worthwhile, impressive gamble,” but said that Mideast policymakers are aware that new cross-border incursions could produce the most dangerous Israeli-Syrian confrontation in years.
That uncertainty centers on the possible reactions of two key players in the region. Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat could see the pullout as a spur to accelerated negotiations — or proof that violence, not talks, is the best route to getting land from the Israelis. And the always impenetrable Syrian President Hafez Assad will now be held accountable for attacks across the new Israel-Lebanon border.
That border remained uneasy this week in the wake of several incidents in which Israeli border guards shot at Lebanese attempting to cross the new line between Israel and Lebanon.
At a cabinet session on Sunday, Prime Minister Ehud Barak warned that the border will remain “delicate and fragile” for some time.
That instability could increase if Lebanon refuses to send troops into the former Israeli security zone, a requirement of the UN resolution that called for Israel’s withdrawal. On Tuesday Lebanese officials said they would send police forces to the area, but not army troops until UN officials officially certify that Israel has complied with the terms of UN Resolution 425.
That could add to the danger faced by Christians in south Lebanon and members of the now-defunct South Lebanon Army, the pro-Israel proxy force that found itself abandoned when Israeli troops pulled out abruptly.
And it could give Shiite extremists in Lebanon a chance to establish control over the areas vacated by Israeli troops, administration officials worry.
Last week, Barak warned Syria that its own assets in Lebanon would not be immune from retaliation if Syrian-backed Hezbollah forces begin attacking across Israel’s northern border. Israeli officials are also responding to reports Damascus has started supporting Palestinian extremists in an effort to keep Jerusalem off balance.
“The situation [with Syria] could blow up, especially because we are getting warnings about the possibility Syria is changing horses, and training Palestinian extremists to take the place of Hezbollah,” said one Israeli official. “That would be a very big mistake on Assad’s part, but it’s a possibility we have to be prepared for.”
The impact of the Lebanon pullout on Israeli-Palestinian talks is unclear. Numerous sources indicate the recent back-channel negotiations in Stockholm, which were expected to resume this week somewhere in the Middle East, have made substantive progress. Israeli officials say a “framework” agreement on final-status issues could be signed within two months, after a three-way Camp David-style summit with Barak, Arafat and Clinton.
Negotiators are said to be close to agreement on most major issues, including the explosive question of Palestinian refugees, but not the issue of Jerusalem.
Finding ways to meet that ambitious timetable and setting the level of American involvement will be high on the agenda when Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak meets with Clinton in Lisbon on Thursday, a make-up session after Barak canceled a visit to Washington last week because of the unfolding Lebanon drama.
But the success of the quickening Palestinian-Israeli talks depends on the lessons Arafat learned from last week’s dramatic developments in Lebanon, several Mideast experts say.
“No matter what happens, the message the Israelis have sent is that they can be defeated on the ground through the use of force,” said Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum and a persistent critic of the administration’s Mideast policies. “That message is particularly relevant for the Palestinians.”
Pipes said that the image of a rout at the hands of a relative handful of Hezbollah guerrillas will reinforce Palestinians who want to hold out for 100 percent of the West Bank and Gaza, and those who simply want to continue the armed fight against Israel.
“The mood of the Palestinians is getting more feisty as a result,” he said. “They have to be asking themselves ‘why are we at the bargaining table, when the Lebanese got everything they wanted through force, not negotiations? What are we waiting for?’ ”
Even pro-peace process activists say Israel’s unilateral pullout from Lebanon could make it politically more difficult for Arafat to accept anything less than the entire West Bank, along with a slice of Jerusalem.
“Different factions will interpret what happened last week in different ways,” said Thomas Smerling, Washington director for the Israel Policy Forum. “In a narrow sense, it reinforces the argument of Hamas — that the only way to get Israel to withdraw is armed struggle.”
But Smerling said Barak’s bold action “reinforces the broader vision that peace really is possible.”
And he said the pullout “puts the Palestinians on notice: if negotiations fail, Barak is capable of taking unilateral action, if necessary, to define Israel’s borders. He will negotiate where he can, but he will take independent action if that’s what’s need to keep the opportunity from passing.”
That prospect, he said, may spur the Palestinians to move quicker in the agonizingly slow talks with Israel.
One wildcard in the Lebanon pullout is the potential impact of the 350,000 Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon — a radicalized population that could become a new proxy for Iran in its battle against Israel, according to a report this week by the Washington Institute for Near East Affairs.
The Palestinians in Lebanon could be one more factor pushing Arafat to hold out for more than Israel is likely to deliver.
But other observers say the pullout from Lebanon and the fact that talks with Syria are dead-ended will give Barak a chance to focus all his attention on the Palestinian track at a particularly important juncture in the negotiations.
According to the conventional wisdom in Washington, the Israeli pullout was the final nail in the coffin of the once-promising Israeli-Syrian talks.
“The prospects look dimmer than ever, and the Lebanon pullout doesn’t change things,” said Martin Raffel, director of the Israel task force of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. “At this point Israel has made its best offer in terms of territorial concessions. For whatever reasons, Assad has taken a pass. We’re still in the position of waiting for Assad.”
But the Israeli pullout could reshuffle the Syria deck by putting enormous new pressure on Damascus to pull its troops out of Lebanon.
Within days of Israel’s withdrawal, there were indications many Lebanese will now turn up the heat on the Syrian occupation.
This week Martin Indyk, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, fanned those fires, saying that the administration regards Lebanese sovereignty as an “urgent priority.
The pullout “is one of many events preparing the way for a Lebanese struggle for independence,” said the Middle East Forum’s Pipes.
“But realistically, it’s only going to happen after Assad’s demise. The Israeli pullout shakes things up in Lebanon, but not enough to lead to major changes there. But when Assad dies, Syria will be weaker, and the Lebanese will have more scope for action.”
The pullout will also change Israel’s psychology, said Stephen P. Cohen, president of the Institute for Middle East Peace and a longtime peace process analyst.
“It helps by showing Barak that making a decision, even a controversial one and one that is not implemented smoothly, is 100 percent better than not making a decision,” he said. “That is an important lesson that could have a big impact on the peace talks. It’s Israel putting its future in its own hands.”