After two weeks of preliminary talks, Israeli Prime Minister-elect Ehud Barak was to begin serious negotiations with political parties late this week to form the broad coalition government he promised. But before the talks began, Barak met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and discussed the latest fighting in southern Lebanon.
The clashes occurred Monday as the South Lebanon Army, Israel’s paid militia, came under attack from Iranian-backed Hezbollah terrorists as the SLA began withdrawing from the Lebanese town of Jezzine. The pullback from an area just north of Israel’s self-imposed six-mile security belt along Lebanon’s southern border with Israel was seen as a precursor to an eventual Israeli troop withdrawal from southern Lebanon.
Barak, who takes office by July 9, has promised to carry out such a withdrawal by next June.
As the troop withdrawal took place, one SLA soldier was killed and another wounded by Hezbollah roadside bombs. An SLA civilian employee also was killed. Other roadside bombs were detected and defused before they could explode. Israeli warplanes retaliated by shelling Hezbollah positions near Jezzine.
But it all came too late to stop the political fallout from what appeared to many to be a rout. Israeli government and military leaders had expected Hezbollah to remain silent during the withdrawal and were said to be shocked by what happened.
Netanyahu convened an emergency meeting of his top security advisers, during which they reportedly decided that the Israel Defense Forces would respond swiftly to any further attacks on SLA troops withdrawing from Jezzine. And the withdrawal, scheduled to take two weeks, instead will be completed this week.
“What happened in Jezzine is starting to look like a defeat for Israel,” Uzi Landau, the right-wing outgoing chairman of the parliamentary commission on foreign and defense affairs, told Israel radio. “The army has given the impression that it had abandoned the SLA, which has been working with Israel for so many years.”
The 2,500-member SLA has worked hand-in-hand with the IDF since it was formed in 1985 to help Israel maintain the defense perimeter it established after its incursion into Lebanon in 1982. The SLA has occupied Jezzine since 1985.
Israel’s internal security chief, Avigdor Kahalani, fumed that “Israel will not tolerate a situation where the SLA takes losses” during a pullout.
Alex Fishman, a columnist for Israel’s most widely read newspaper, Yediot Achronot, wrote: “Anyone trying to imagine what a unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon looks like got the precise and humiliating picture yesterday from Jezzine of SLA troops retreating under attack.”
But Rabbi Yehuda Gilad, a member of the Meimad party that helped Barak form his One Israel alliance, said Barak believes Syria will rein in Hezbollah once he begins peace talks with that country.
“I believe [Barak] will not withdraw without arrangements,” he said. “He believes that just by starting to negotiate, Hezbollah will stop and stabilize the area and that it would be more difficult to start again even if the negotiations fail.”
Rabbi Gilad said the Israeli public was caught by surprise this week when Netanyahu confirmed press reports that he had conducted secret talks with Syria that included a proposal to replace Israeli troops on the Golan Heights with foreign troops. The Golan Heights was captured by Israel during the Six-Day War in 1967, and Syria has demanded its return as a precondition to any peace talks. Former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres reportedly had agreed to cede all but a sliver of the Golan to Syria during talks in 1996, but no deal was signed.
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz said secret Israeli-Syrian talks were held beginning in late 1997. Acting as mediators were the European Union, the United States, Oman, a Gulf Arab state friendly to Israel, and Manhattan businessman and former diplomat Ronald Lauder, now chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, according to the paper. But Haaretz said no deal was concluded because Netanyahu balked at the last minute.
Israel’s former consul general in New York, Colette Avital, said she was surprised as well by Netanyahu’s admission because “he kept on accusing other people of conducting back-channel [negotiations], which is something he said he wouldn’t do.”
Israel radio reported that Netanyahu told Barak that although no agreement was reached, Syria had indicated greater flexibility than it has publicly acknowledged. And in Syria, the government-run newspaper, Al-Thawra, said Syria was “ready to cooperate seriously and fruitfully with any endeavor that aims at rescuing the peace process and getting it out of the current dangerous impasse.”
Last Friday, President Bill Clinton spoke by phone with Syrian President Hafez Assad and promised to make a personal effort to revive the Syrian-Israeli peace talks. On Monday, there were Israeli press reports that Assad had been hospitalized with “severe heart problems,” but those reports were not immediately confirmed.
Avital said Barak remains committed to negotiating an Israeli troop withdrawal with Syria and that this was one pledge he was determined to fulfill. She said he is committed also to drafting yeshiva students — who until now have been granted automatic military exemptions — adopting Israel’s first constitution and resuming peace talks with the Palestinians. She said these are among the positions on which he is building his coalition government.
Rabbi Gilad said Barak’s approach in building his coalition was to “cleverly” reach out to the two extreme parties with whom he could live — the left-wing Meretz and the right-wing National Religious Party — and try to bring them into the government. That will not be an easy task because Meretz wants a freeze on settlement activity and no further special government benefits for settlers. The NRP wants the opposite.
But Rabbi Gilad said he was confident a compromise could be reached. Such a compromise might involve the creation of a committee of ministers who would decide how and where to expand settlements based on their natural needs. No new settlements would be built.
“After getting them both in the coalition, he will get the others in as well,” said the rabbi.
Barak has not publicly commented on last week’s action by outgoing Defense Minister Moshe Arens to attach a major West Bank settlement, Maale Adumim, to Jerusalem. In so doing, Israel seizes land near two Arab villages to form a band of Israeli-settled territory that cuts the occupied West Bank in half.
Maale Adumim is the largest West Bank settlement, with about 20,000 residents. Arens’ predecessor, Yitzchak Mordechai, refused to approve the plan fearing Arab reaction, but Arens gave the OK last week. Barak previously pledged to keep all major Jewish West Bank settlements under Israeli control, but there were reports this week that West Bank contractors had stopped work on new construction because they were unsure of what Barak’s policy would be.
Meanwhile, Israeli security forces were placed on alert after the Palestinian Authority called for Arabs to take to the streets and “do what they can to stop settlements.” In advance of the declaration, there were reports of increased Palestinian stone-throwing attacks, a shooting near Hebron and a firebombing in Gaza.
Rabbi Gilad discounted an Israeli newspaper report that Barak would be content to form a government with 61 coalition members — the thinnest possible — if he was unable to develop the broad coalition he wants.
“That would be a great failure for him,” said the rabbi, who said he expected Barak to fulfill his mission.
“Most people believe a way will be found for Likud to join the coalition because Barak wants it very much,” he said. “He wants to give more color to his government, so that he will have the power to stand against the left in his party.”
He said the Center Party and Natan Sharansky’s Yisroel B’Aliyah would be among the first parties to join. And Rabbi Gilad said he was confident that Aryeh Deri, who in April was convicted of corruption, would step down as leader of the Shas Party, thus paving the way for Shas to also join the coalition. Deri has appealed his conviction.
Rabbi Gilad pointed out that Shas’ spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, wants Deri to step aside for the good of the party and might find a way to “appoint him to a yeshiva — thus pushing him up.”
Avital said that as the serious coalition talks begin, she believes parties may compromise on their principles in return for plum assignments, such as ambassador to Washington or key ministerial posts.
“A lot of people in the parties want to know what portfolios they will get because a lot of the compromises will be made on that knowledge,” she said. “A party might be more amenable on the peace process if it was promised the Interior Ministry, for instance. So the negotiations cannot be conducted only around policy differences.”