Firmer Israeli grip on Lebanon seen as a result of Iraq bombing
Beirut — The shadow of Israel looms large over Lebanon these days. If Israel's raid on Iraq's nuclear reactor June 7 has had an impact on the now-quiet -- but always explosive -- Lebanese crisis, say Western and Lebanese sources, it is this: Israel's ability to influence, and even control, Lebanon's future course has increased.
"They showed that they can do anything they want here," a Lebanese official who asked anonymity told the Monitor June 10.
"They flew all the way to Baghdad and back without losing a plane. The Syrian missiles [stationed in Lebanon since April 29] would be nothing to them. Of course, Syria would respond. Syria must respond. But it would be very easy for the Israelis," this official said.
For several years now Israel has had considerable say in Lebanon. The border enclave under the control of maverick Lebanese Army officer Saad Haddad is backed up directly by Israel. And since April, Israel has been the declared protector of the northern Lebanese Phalangist enclave, an area running from east Beirut to just south of Tripoli.
Israel's search-and-destroy policy against Palestinian guerrillas carries Israeli commandos as far north as Damoor on Beirut's outskirts. Israel's reconnaissance planes dominate the skies over the coastal strip of the country, and Israeli patrol boats control the sea lanes off Lebanon.
But, interestingly, Israel rarely raids the southern Bekaa Valley. And except for the April 28 air attack on Syrian helicopters in the central Bekaa, Israel regularly avoids conflict with Syrian forces anywhere in Lebanon.
Interviews with Syrian, Lebanese, and Western diplomats in the wake of the Israeli attack on Baghdad indicates they still see Lebanon as the main arena for Israeli interests. These sources, moreover, see a new status quo emerging in Lebanon, an unspoken agreement between Israel and Syria that includes these elements.
Israel is able to operate freely in southern Lebanon and the whole coastal area except for Beirut, but including the Phalangist enclave. Syrian and Palestinian officials say they still anticipate a major Israeli attack on southern Lebanon soon between Tyre and Sidon. The aim, they believe, will be to neutralize what remains of armed Palestinian resistance in this pocket, to thicken the cordon sanitaire that runs along the north of Israel from the Mediterranean through "Haddadland" to the Golan Heights, and to end any potential for long-range bombardment of northern Israeli towns.
Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin promised last month that residents of Qiryat Shemona, near the Lebanese border, that soon they would have no worries of Palestinian rockets disrupting their lives.
Western diplomats concur with this assessment but differ on timing -- whether before or after the June 30 Israeli election -- and on whether it will be coupled with a raid on Syrian antiaircraft missiles in Lebanon. If before June 30, they say, an air raid is possible.
At that same time, the Syrians will operate freely in central Lebanon, thereby realizing a longstanding desire to control the western approach to Damascus and, as a Lebanese political analyst puts it, "to get a long-term trade-off -- the Bekaa for the Golan Heights."
"As long as it's not Syrian soldiers getting killed in these Israeli raids [ into Lebanon]," a Western source says, "I don't think the Syrians will respond directly.
When, however, three Syrian soldiers in Lebanon were killed in an Israeli ambush last winter, Syria answered by firing tank and cannon rounds into Haddadland. The Begin government issued a quick apology, even though the Syrian response was not believed to have affected Israel significantly.
Lack of Syrian response to the 1978 Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon gave the Israeli Army a gauge on Syria and "nothing has changed since then," one diplomat notes. "If anything, the Syrian position has eroded."
The developments, says a Palestinian living in Syria, mean "the Fayadeen [ Palestinian guerr illas] will be finished . . . no more."