THE recent deaths of Israeli soldiers patrolling the "security zone" in southern Lebanon grimly illustrate an inescapable fact: that Israel's continued occupation of Lebanese territory is a liability both for Israel and for the Middle Eastern peace process. The time is right for Israel's leaders to take a fresh look at how best to secure their northern border.
Israeli forces have been on Lebanese territory since March 1978, when they consolidated a security zone nominally administered by a Christian Lebanese officer. The purpose of the zone was twofold: to place Israeli territory beyond the reach of Palestinian gunners, and to place on the table a strong Israeli card in the high-stakes game of determining Lebanon's political future.
In June 1982 Israel moved decisively to destroy the Palestinian military presence in southern Lebanon and rearrange the Lebanese political scene to its advantage. The first objective was achieved as Palestinian forces were driven back to Beirut and eventually evacuated from Lebanon. The second was frustrated by Lebanese political disunity and skillful Syrian subversion. By 1984 Israeli forces were essentially back within the security zone, with a new and more potent opponent - one enjoying the support of Iran and Syria.
In a 1984 study of security and water disputes in the Galilean region, I noted that "In the long run, unless Israel is willing to assume complete responsibility for the economic and political aspirations of the volatile Lebanese Shi'a community in the south, there will be no peace for Galilee without a real government for Lebanon." Lebanon is still - in the south - without a real government, and over the past decade Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon has acted as a magnet for Syrian-supported Hizbullah attacks on Israeli forces, Israel's surrogates, and Israel itself.
It may well be that 25 years of cross-border violence has rendered a "solution" to the current impasse impossible. There may be no one in Israel still interested in embracing the Lebanese "tar baby," but how to let it go is the issue. Is there a way Israel might extricate itself from Lebanon and, at the same time, enhance the security of its citizens? Must such an extrication await a formal peace treaty with Lebanon, or might its unilateral implementation help break the logjam blocking the Israel-Syria-Lebanon track?
One hypothesis worth testing is that neither Hizbullah nor Syria will have any compelling reason to attack Israeli territory from Lebanon if the occupation ends and Israeli forces withdraw to Israel's side of the international boundary. The fighters of Hizbullah claim to be motivated by a desire to end Israel's occupation. A unilateral Israeli withdrawal might suit them fine. Having "liberated" southern Lebanon, would it make sense for them to press the attack into Israel proper?
It can be argued, no doubt convincingly, that no Israeli government could permit Hizbullah to claim "victory" in this manner and that nothing could "guarantee" the security of Israel's northern towns. A corollary to this argument is that neither Hizbullah nor Syria is to be "trusted," and a unilateral withdrawal would convey to Israel's enemies a sense of "weakness" sure to be exploited.
If, however, it is just possible that Israel's security would be enhanced as a result of evacuation, it is worth asking anew whether the cost of trying it would be prohibitive. In view of the fact that Israel makes no claim on Lebanese territory, is there any issue except the security of Israeli citizens worth considering in a withdrawal scenario? How might the government of Israel proceed in a manner defensible both in terms of internal Israeli politics and the safety of Israeli citizens?
The government of Israel could consider declaring unilaterally its intention to withdraw all of its forces from Lebanese territory within 90 days. It could request that the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) convene, as soon as possible, a meeting of Israeli and Lebanese military officers to work out the details of a professional hand-over. Israel could make it clear at the outset that its forces will be gone in 90 days and that no amount of stalling, hand wringing, or haggling would alter the timetable.
Coupled with this declaration should be another statement designed to fix, once and for all, the responsibility of Israel's neighbors to respect the inviolability of Israel's borders. Israel could declare that it will hold the governments of Lebanon and Syria fully responsible for ensuring that no party in Lebanon, to include all of Syria's Palestinian and Lebanese surrogates, violates Israeli sovereignty in any way. Israel could make it especially clear that it will make no return of territory to Syria unless the border with Lebanon becomes as quiet as the cease-fire line on the Golan Heights. Indeed, the willingness of Syria and its Lebanese proxies to act responsibly in southern Lebanon before, during, and after the evacuation of Israeli forces will instruct the Israeli people as to the advisability of a territorial settlement with Syria.
In this manner the liability presented by southern Lebanon can be converted to an asset in the hands of those sincerely interested in a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace settlement. Should new attacks on Israeli territory be mounted from Lebanon, direct retaliation by Israeli forces on those responsible for maintaining law and order in Lebanon would be warranted. Instead of creating massive flows of embittered refugees, Israel would be striking at the actual malefactors. Who, under such circumstances, could blame Israel?
Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon helps perpetuate an ambiguity that does not exist on the Golan Heights, arguably the most peaceful spot on earth for over 20 years. Syria has exploited this ambiguity to strike indirectly at Israel by encouraging fighters who claim to be waging a war of national liberation. Israel alone can remove this ambiguity by withdrawing and forcing its neighbors to accept full responsibility for their actions. Such an action could hardly be characterized as a defeat.