Israel's 'Security Zone' Enters a Twilight Zone

Two decades after it took south Lebanon, Jewish state looks for a way to exit with honor.

Unlike most anniversaries of military events in the Middle East, the one marking 20 years since Israel first invaded southern Lebanon has been met with a diplomatic flurry aimed at finding a peaceful solution.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says Israel now accepts United Nations Security Council Resolution 425, which requires an immediate and unconditional Israeli troop withdrawal - if it can make security agreements with the government in Beirut to prevent pro-Iran Hizbullah guerrillas from attacking northern Israel.

In response, leaders of Syria and Lebanon have been holding high-level meetings - including a summit in Damascus on Saturday, exactly two decades after Israeli troops rumbled across the border into Lebanon - to ensure a united front. They insist that any deal must be linked to an Israel-Syria agreement on the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

The diplomatic storm comes just days before separate Mideast tours by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, both aimed at restarting the Arab-Israeli peace process, which suffered more setbacks after the killing of three Palestinians by Israeli soldiers at a West Bank checkpoint last week.

Israel broke off peace talks with Syria two years ago, but regarding southern Lebanon, no one wants to be seen as creating obstacles.

Even hard-line Israeli Minister of Infrastructure Ariel Sharon - who as defense chief in 1982 ordered Israeli troops to invade Lebanon and occupy West Beirut, and who is widely considered to be responsible for allowing militia allies to massacre hundreds of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon that year - has proposed a staggered pullout.

With some 30,000 Syrian troops in Lebanon, Syria's President Hafez al-Assad is known to be the chief powerbroker there, and sources in Beirut make clear that any "secret" deal only between Lebanon and Israel is out of the question. There are also indications from Jerusalem, for the first time, of Israeli recognition that Syria's blessing is required.

"There is certainly some kind of authenticity in the way the Israelis are hammering us with this offer," says Issa Goraieb, editor of Beirut's L'Orient-le Jour newspaper. "They are really looking for some way out."

Debate in Israel about a pullout has grown in recent months, as Hizbullah guerrillas continue to inflict casualties on Israeli soldiers and their proxy Lebanese militia allies. Some 39 Israelis were killed in Lebanon last year - the highest toll since 1985 - compared with 54 guerrillas. So far this year, four Israelis have died.

Battles occur almost daily, and Israeli forces avenge attacks with swift air raids on suspected guerrilla hideouts. Over the years, Israel has made numerous deeper incursions with little effect.

"We cannot conquer the Hizbullah ... but we can strike at them and weaken them," an officer posted in Lebanon, identified only as Colonel Nimrod, recently told Israel radio.

This toll has caused deep soul searching in Israel, and sparked comparisons with America's debacle in Vietnam. Also, the original reasons for the 1978 and 1982 invasions - Palestinian guerrillas who once launched attacks against Israel from Lebanon - are nearly all gone.

But the occupation of a 9-mile-wide strip of Lebanon that Israel calls its "security zone" has ensured that Islamic guerrillas now fighting to oust Israeli troops have widespread popular support in Lebanon. In Israel, polls show that most Israelis want an end to the Lebanon quagmire, but that 73 percent oppose a unilateral withdrawal without guarantees.

Diplomatic initiatives began with Mr. Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai visiting Europe last week to make their case. Lebanon has rejected any direct talks, calling the Israeli initiative is "nothing new."

But high-level diplomatic activity belies that view. Last week Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa visited Beirut and took the unprecedented step of staying overnight. Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri met with Mr. Assad, and Saturday's Damascus summit included top leaders from both sides.

Analysts in Beirut and Damascus say that Israel's policy has evolved some since Netanyahu put forward a "Lebanon First" proposal a year and a half ago. That was widely seen as a ploy to sideline Syria and split the Syria-Lebanon track of the peace process. Assad insists upon linking the security arrangements for any pullout - which is likely to depend upon Syria, because only Damascus is seen to be capable of controlling Hizbullah - to an Israel-Syria deal on the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

Israel appears to be no longer seeking the disarmament of Hizbullah, and talk of a treaty with Lebanon has turned to agreeing upon technical details of maintaining security. Mr. Sharon said Israel should withdraw in stages and make clear that Beirut would be held responsible for any cross-border attacks.

"I propose a redeployment after a warning - setting very clear rules, withdrawing from a portion of the area, allowing the Lebanese to enter, announcing in advance what we're about to do," he said Friday.

Hizbullah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah said Lebanon should not give Israel guarantees, and that Israel acknowledged Resolution 425 "as a result of blows by the Islamic resistance."

But in an interview published in Le Figaro in Paris this week, Sheikh Nasrallah said: "When the day comes [for an Israeli withdrawal], it would only be natural that all the government institutions would be represented in the area. The Lebanese army is responsible for security, and we will not intervene."

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