Israel's 'Tragic Mistake' Adds To the Push for a Cease-Fire

Civilian deaths part of 'enormous risks' taken by Peres

ISRAEL is looking to cut its losses and save political face after last week's disastrous shelling of a UN camp housing hundreds of Lebanese refugees.

The loss of 101 civilian lives at the United Nations camp in southern Lebanon Thursday has raised tension levels in the Middle East, but has also opened new opportunities for a Syrian-backed cease-fire by Hizbullah guerrillas in Lebanon.

Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres's preelection gamble - to strike a blow against the Syrian- and Iranian-backed Hizbullah and shore up his security image ahead of May 29 elections - has backfired.

Mr. Peres has acknowledged that the shelling of the civilians was a "tragic mistake" and he has conceded that the incident has brought the military operation closer to its end.

"Peres has taken enormous risks, and if he backs off now he loses everything," says Gerald Steinberg, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv.

"But it will be much more difficult for Peres to end the military campaign without a substantive improvement in Israel's security situation," Professor Steinberg adds.

Israeli military bombardments of Lebanon continued over the weekend following a Friday decision by the Israeli Cabinet to continue Operation Grapes of Wrath, despite mounting international pressure for a cease-fire.

US Secretary of State Warren Christopher arrived in the region on Saturday and began shuttling between capitals. The foreign ministers of Russia, France, and Italy, are also in the area trying to broker a solution. And Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati visited Damascus.

But a diplomatic solution to Israel's military offensive in Lebanon might prove as elusive as the hit-and-run Hizbullah guerrillas that a 12-day land, sea, and air bombardment has failed to silence.

Militarily it has backfired and weakened Israel's bargaining position in its quest for a diplomatic settlement to stop Hizbullah - whose goal is to evict Israelis occupying southern Lebanon - from launching attacks on Israel.

The offensive also does not appear to have won Peres much political advantage ahead of the May elections in which he faces a concerted challenge from right-wing Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu.

A poll conducted for the Israeli daily newspaper Yediot Ahronot, published Friday, showed Peres had gained only one percentage point against Mr. Netanyahu compared with a poll two weeks earlier.

"I think Israel's campaign has backfired both militarily and politically," says Martin van Creveld, a political strategist at Hebrew University. "But silencing the Hizbullah was an impossible objective from the start, and Peres should never have embarked on the campaign. Israel's military campaigns in Lebanon failed in 1982 and 1993. Why should it succeed now?" Professor Van Creveld asks.

A diplomatic settlement of the Israeli-Hizbullah conflict could lead to the eventual withdrawal of Israeli forces from south Lebanon and a reining in of the Hizbullah - backed by Iran and Syria.

"I think the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Lebanon is now squarely on the table," Steinberg says. Until the current offensive, a solution to the Israel-Lebanon conflict was seen as part of the broader negotiations for a Syria-Israel peace accord.

Syria is back at center stage in the diplomatic efforts, which center around efforts to persuade Syrian President Hafez al-Assad to strike a deal that would allow both Israel and Syria to save face.

"The question is whether Syria will feel under sufficient pressure to seek a settlement," says Steinberg, adding that the US could offer incentives like striking Syria off the United States State Department list of nations that sponsor terrorism and provide access to foreign loans and finance.

The diplomatic activity is accompanied by a dangerous escalation of political tensions and violence in the region that Western diplomats say could spiral out of control unless a solution is found soon:

*Egypt's largest militant Islamic group claimed Saturday that it had meant to target Israelis in retaliation for Israel's killing of civilians in Lebanon when it gunned down 18 Greek tourists in Cairo on Thursday.

*Egypt criticized the United States for its failure to condemn Israel for its bombardment of Lebanon and blamed US inaction for the civilian deaths.

*The Jordanian Parliament voted to suspend the peace process with Israel because of the civilian casualties in Lebanon.

*Israeli Arabs, who seldom protest Israel's involvement in regional conflicts, staged violent demonstrations in Nazareth against Israel's shelling of southern Lebanon.

*In Beirut, students defied a government ban on public demonstrations to protest the Israeli offensive.

But analysts say they do not expect the crisis in Lebanon to set back the Israeli-Palestinian peace accord.

Members of the Palestinian National Council (PNC), the Palestinian parliament in exile, begin meeting today in Gaza. One of the items expected to be discussed is repealing clauses in the 1968 Palestinian National Charter that call for the destruction of Israel. The 1993 Israeli-Palestinian peace accord calls for the Palestinians to repeal the clauses by May 7.

"I don't think the Israeli offensive in Lebanon will have much impact on the PNC debate," says Khalil Shikaki, a political scientist at An Najah University in Nablus. "The days when regional issues played a major role in Palestinian affairs are long since over."

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