Israel's escape hatch

Israel's declaration of a "security zone" in southern Lebanon stems only from 1985, but Israel has occupied parts of the country since the mid-1970s when Lebanon was wracked by civil war.

Under the unrelenting pressure of resistance forces - notably Hizbullah, the Shiite Muslim Party of God - Israel's grandiose goals evaporated long ago, and it has been groping for a way out of the south. But its way has been blocked by its own poor analysis of its opponents.

Last year, Prime Minister Ehud Barak brought the occupation to center stage in his election campaign by promising to withdraw by this July. Mr. Barak's preferred device is a package deal - a peace treaty with Syria and Lebanon - to facilitate the exit. Deal or not, it's clear Israel is leaving.

Israel has begun to execute its exit strategy by punishing Lebanese civilians for Israel's defeat and by tearing up the rules of the internationally brokered 1996 written understanding that drew up the rules of the game. It is as though a boxer jumps out of the ring, throws hand grenades at the audience, and blows up the refreshment stand for good measure.

Barak claims that Hizbullah's attacks constitute a "violation" of rules hammered out by diplomats in 1993 and 1996, following massive Israeli attacks on Lebanon.

But UN observers have verified that the recent Hizbullah actions were within those rules, which permit resistance to occupation, provided the guerrillas do not attack Israeli territory. Each side committed itself to avoid targeting civilians. Despite the embarrassing sycophancy of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who has worked hard to justify Israel's bombing of civilian targets, US officials privately stress that the problem lies with the failure of Israeli policy.

Israel presumes that Syria possesses the means to rein in Hizbullah. However, Syria's freedom of maneuver is easily exaggerated. Even dictators worry about public opinion, and the fact is that the resistance to the Israeli occupiers enjoys wide popularity in Syria and in Lebanon. Few people there believe that Israel will withdraw without pressure.

Israel's preference for a formally negotiated exit has merit, but a unilateral withdrawal based on tacit understandings is more likely.

Should Israel withdraw, the question of the hour is what will happen?

The clear signals from Hizbullah and Iran, its patron, point to a stable situation. Iran's perspective on the peace process and its view of Hizbullah, which it brought to life in 1982, have changed fundamentally. These changes have sometimes been obscured by the cacophony of political debate in Iran.

Hizbullah and Iran have pursued a measured strategy, not because of Syrian pressure, but because the basic goal is to see Israel end its occupation. Tehran calls for honoring the 1996 ground rules, also coincidentally, a goal of US and European diplomacy. Iranian officials have urged Hizbullah's political transformation from stalking horse to legitimate political party. Equally important, Iran's incremental moves to become an active player in Middle East diplomacy reflect the steady marginalization of its advocates for permanent revolution.

This transformation is also made necessary by the much-broadened political constituency that Hizbullah has built among Lebanese Shiites in 1990s. Offering an alternative to corrupt patronage politics, Hizbullah has been alert to its supporters' interests and attitudes. Certainly, it anticipates winning considerable political capital by emerging the victor in the south.

Skeptics in Israel and the US assert that Hizbullah has no significant popular support in Lebanon, and therefore can't put down its arms. The facts argue otherwise.

Hizbullah has succeeded in recrafting itself as perhaps the only real party in Lebanon. By acting responsibly - and within the rules - in recent days, it has further insured its political life. This underlines that its goal is to expel Israel from Lebanon, not to attack Israeli territory.

These factors point the way to the escape hatch.

When Israel leaves, it will also find itself sitting across the table from Syria with a far stronger hand than its southern exposure now permits.

*Bahman Baktiari is author of 'Parliamentary Politics in Revolutionary Iran' (University Press of Florida, 1997). Augustus Richard Norton is author of 'Hizballah of Lebanon' (Council on Foreign Relations). They wrote this commentary from Amman, Jordan.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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