Israel’s conflict with Hezbollah terrorists in southern Lebanon moved from the battlefield to the political arena this week.
Ehud Barak, the Labor Party candidate seeking to unseat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the May 17 elections, vowed to withdraw Israeli troops from Lebanon by June 2000, within the context of negotiations with Syria. Netanyahu, whose Likud Party at first chastised Barak for turning the issue into a “simplistic election gimmick,” later came close to matching Barak’s pledge.
The war of words came on the heels of an Israeli air assault Sunday on four Hezbollah targets in Lebanon. Officially, Israeli officials said the attack was in reprisal for the Hezbollah shelling of northern Israeli towns. But it followed within hours the Hezbollah detonation of a roadside bomb Sunday that killed four Israelis traveling in a convoy within Israel’s so-called “security zone” in southern Lebanon.
Israel established the nine-mile wide zone in 1985 to protect its northern border from terrorist attacks. Iranian-back Hezbollah terrorists ever since have been conducting guerrilla warfare against the troops.
Those killed Sunday were Brig. Gen. Erez Gerstein, Israel’s top commander in the security zone, two soldiers and a journalist. Seven Israelis have been killed in southern Lebanon in the last two weeks. Twenty-one Israeli soldiers were killed in action during all of last year, and 1,200 have been lost since Israeli troops first moved into Lebanon in 1978.
Hanan Cristal, a political analyst for Israeli public radio, said the latest developments have put Lebanon “at the center of the election campaign, when Netanyahu had hoped to keep the debate focused on the Palestinian issue, where he feels stronger.”
Throughout Israel the deaths Sunday sparked anguish and protests calling for an immediate, unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon. About 40 demonstrators gathered Sunday in front of the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, and about two dozen gathered Monday near the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem. Those in Jerusalem carried torches and signs that read: “We have no more sons for war!”
Against this background, Barak gave a series of television and radio interviews in which he pledged that if elected, he would complete a troop withdrawal within one year.
“I promise you that if we create the next government, by June 2000 we will be out of Lebanon,” he declared. “The withdrawal will take place in the framework of a resumption of negotiations with Syria, a change in the type of operations carried out by our army in Lebanon, and intensive contacts with the international community about deploying an interim international force in Lebanon.”
Barak’s foreign policy adviser, Alon Pinkas, said in a phone interview from Israel that this was the first time Barak had set a timetable for withdrawal. But he stressed that it would be “within the context of renewed negotiations with the Syrians, direct negotiations with the Lebanese and obtaining the support of the international community.”
Pinkas said Barak’s plan is for a phased redeployment to be completed by June 2000. But he repeated that this is contingent upon there being “a credible and reliable address in Lebanon to deal with, and that it is done in the context of implicit or explicit understandings with the Syrians. There needs to be a Syrian agreement — even a tacit agreement — to any redeployment in Lebanon.”
The Lebanese government is a puppet of Syria, which has troops in the country.
Asked about Syria’s demand for an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, Pinkas said Barak is not linking Lebanon and the Golan Heights. Although Barak has not spoken definitively about a withdrawal from the Golan Heights, the Labor government of former Prime Minister Shimon Peres agreed in principle to trade land for peace with Syria.
Syria has insisted that it would not enter into peace talks with Israel unless it pledged to withdraw from the Golan Heights, which it claims Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin had agreed to do before his assassination in 1995. Israel seized the Golan Heights from Syria during the Six-Day War in June 1967.
A survey conducted last week by the Gallup institute found that 53 percent of Israelis favor a withdrawal from the Golan Heights as part of a peace accord with Syria and Lebanon. And 53 percent said Netanyahu’s government had not done enough to resolve the Lebanon crisis.
Following Barak’s pledge, Netanyahu responded with a series of television and radio interviews of his own in which he too promised to withdraw Israeli troops from Lebanon.
“I think that we can find a way that would allow us to withdraw from south Lebanon in the next year, but I will not set any deadline,” he said.
Netanyahu identified two ways to bring Israeli troops home: “One option is a withdrawal in the framework of arrangements with Syria … and the second is a unilateral pullout.” He accused Barak of being “ready to give everything to Syria, while a government under my leadership will agree to pay only a reasonable price” for peace.
But Pinkas scoffed at Netanyahu’s pledge, asking why he had not found a way to withdraw troops since he took office in June 1996.
Israel’s consul general in New York, Shmuel Sisso, said the Netanyahu government has “no territorial claims on Lebanon” and has been trying to implement a 1978 United Nations resolution that calls for Israeli troop withdraw. But he noted that the resolution contains a provision that Lebanese troops replace Israeli troops to keep the zone clear of Hezbollah terrorists. Lebanon has refused to commit to such an arrangement.
Barak, in a play on Netanyahu’s campaign slogan, “A strong leader for a strong people,” accused the prime minister this week of being “too weak to bring about a withdrawal from Lebanon.”
“Netanyahu’s policies have isolated us completely in the world,” said Barak, “and he cannot hope to find the slighted international support for a solution in Lebanon.”
The spiritual guide of pro-Iranian Shiite Muslim fundamentalists in Lebanon, Sheik Mohamad Hussein Fadlallah, said the by-play between Netanyahu and Barak “show their indecisiveness on what actions to follow and that they have no plan to deal with the situation.”
Columnist Yoel Marcus in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz sounded a similar note in a column titled, “Let’s just get the hell out.”
“Our leadership has been suffering from collective paralysis on everything connected to the topic,” he wrote. This week, we will be asking the two-decades-old question: What more must happen, how many more soldiers must be killed, how many more families must join the ‘circle of bereavement,’ before our leaders … get the hell out?”
And an editorial in the Israel newspaper Ma’ariv concluded that the only solution is a “political agreement with the Syrians at the cost of our departure from the Golan.”