Flush with success over his mediation efforts in Iraq, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan plans to fly to southern Lebanon later this month to deal with Israel’s pledge to withdraw from its self-imposed security zone there if it is cleared of Hezbollah terrorists.
Israeli UN Ambassador Dore Gold, who plans to accompany Annan on his two-day trip to Israel, said he told Annan in a letter Jan. 27 that Israel was prepared to withdraw from southern Lebanon as called for in UN Resolution 425. But Gold stressed that Israel would do so “only in the framework of the implementation of all elements of the resolution.”
The 1978 resolution calls for the restoration of international peace and security along the Israeli-Lebanese border, and for providing assistance to the government of Lebanon to assure the return of its authority in the area.
Israel’s position made no mention of Syria; the Jewish state had linked its withdrawal with progress in peace talks with Syria.
Its new stance was reiterated by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at last Sunday’s cabinet meeting following a Hezbollah attack on an Israeli position four days earlier in which three Israeli soldiers were killed and two wounded.
Lebanese Foreign Minister Farez Bueiz immediately rejected the Israeli proposal. He told the Arabic daily Al-Hayat that Israel’s decision “distorts and perverts Resolution 425 because it adds conditions that do not exist in it.” He said Israel must leave unconditionally.
The Syrian press voiced a similar position and called the move “a new trap.” The government publication Tishrin accused Israel of attaching conditions aimed at tying down Lebanon militarily and politically.
In an attempt to press its case diplomatically, Israeli cabinet secretary Dan Naveh and Netanyahu’s foreign policy adviser, Uzi Arad, flew to Paris to enlist France’s support amid reported diplomatic signals that Syria was interested in renewing peace talks.
French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine told the Reuters news agency that France would help in anyway possible, but noted that until now Lebanon has refused to commit to providing security in southern Lebanon “because it is not compatible with the reconstitution of its sovereignty.”
“We can’t tell Lebanon to accept something it does not want,” he said.
The subject is expected to be high on the agenda of Netanyahu and Israeli Defense Minister Yitzchak Mordechai this week when they take separate trips to Europe. Netanyahu will visit four nations including Norway, which has troops in southern Lebanon as part of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon, or UNIFIL. Since 1978 UNIFIL has been the intended peacekeeper in the buffer zone.
Mordechai plans to travel to France, which has longstanding interests in Lebanon and since July 1996 has been a member of the five-nation monitoring committee in the zone, along with the U.S., Israel, Syria and Lebanon.
“The goals of UNIFIL are to supervise Israeli withdrawal and monitor the restoration of international peace and security,” said Gold. “To do that, it has to assist the government of Lebanon in reasserting its authority there.”
He said Israel’s goal is to see that security arrangements are made that remove the threat of terrorist attacks against northern Israel and to disarm Hezbollah.
Asked if Israel would be willing to allow a beefed-up UNIFIL to handle that job if Lebanon continues to refuse, Gold replied that Annan “will be coming with a great deal of credibility. We’ll have to see what [Annan] has to say.”
As maneuvering was stepped up on the diplomatic front, two Israeli warplanes pounded Hezbollah terrorist strongholds Tuesday in southern Lebanon. Plumes of black smoke could be seen rising over the area, the second Israeli air attack in four days on the position.
Israel’s renewal of the Lebanon track comes in the aftermath of reports that progress with the Palestinians have stalled. Netanyahu said recently that agreements on several issues, including the opening of a Palestinian airport and an industrial park in Gaza, were being held up by the Palestinians to create a “crisis” atmosphere. The Palestinians blame Israeli intransigence.
Observers said the Israeli position in Lebanon puts pressure on both Lebanon and Syria to come up with a credible response.
It might also ease the need for the U.S. to press Israel to withdraw from more than an additional 9 percent of the West Bank. The U.S. is said to be seeking a withdrawal of 13 percent.