Israel on Lebanon: Real Deal or Fancy Footwork?

Israel decided Wednesday to pull out of Lebanon zone. The Palestinians could gain - or lose. Ire of Hamas rises.

An old but enduring Yiddish proverb says you can't dance at two weddings.

That adage may help explain why Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has shown a willingness to withdraw from Israel's self-declared "security zone" in southern Lebanon, but has so far withheld concessions on West Bank troop withdrawals.

If Mr. Netanyahu calculates that he can't stick out his neck by retreating from two places at once, he risks a lot less political capital by offering to leave Lebanon. Popular opposition in Israel has mounted against maintaining the zone, where Israel is fighting a war of attrition against the Iranian-backed Hizbullah, or Party of God.

But it has no settlements or sentiments that would encumber withdrawal.

By contrast, several members of Netanyahu's government have threatened to quit if he agrees to turn over more land to the Palestinians, as stipulated in the Oslo accords.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright hinted that she perceived this approach, suggesting that the US does not want to keep stalled Israel-Palestinian talks on the back burner. The US wants a broad accord in the region, she said at a news conference, "but we understand the importance of making progress where we can."

The Palestinian issue won't stay off the agenda for long. Ms. Albright's Middle East envoy, Dennis Ross, left the region earlier this week without claiming much progress in breaking the impasse over the scope of Israeli troop withdrawals.

Now, a dispute over the death of a Palestinian bombmaker looks poised to spark a new showdown between Israel and Hamas, the Muslim militant group.

The body of Mohiyedine Sharif, who topped Israel's most-wanted list, was found next to the site of a car explosion Sunday. Israel said that Mr. Sharif probably killed himself during a "work accident" as he was preparing a bomb for use in Israel. But a Palestinian autopsy found that he was shot before the car exploded, raising Arab speculation that Sharif may have been assassinated. Israel unequivocally denied that it had any role in Sharif's death, but Hamas leaders blamed Israel and vowed revenge.

The threat of new attacks is also likely to keep Netanyahu from moving on negotiations with the Palestinians, because hard-liners in his government will have more reason to press him not to. Right-wingers argue that Netanyahu is not obligated to hand over more land because, they say, Palestinian President Yasser Arafat has not done enough to quell terrorism.

"As long as he does not comply with all the requirements of that agreement there is nothing to talk about," says Avner Shaki, a Knesset (Parliament) member of the National Religious Party.

Some analysts say that if Netanyahu were to orchestrate a safe Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon, it could give him a popularity boost and put him in a better position to make land concessions to the Palestinians.

"Yes, once you are engaging in Lebanon, he could say he's too busy with that to be dealing with the Palestinians, but a positive first step in Lebanon can influence positively on other tracks as well," says Dr. Eyal Zisser, a Tel Aviv University specialist in Syrian and Lebanese affairs.

"I would say it's the beginning of the end of the Israeli presence in Lebanon," he says.

But despite positive steps, a true breakthrough in Lebanon is not likely now. Syrian and Lebanese leaders rejected Netanyahu's move as a public-relations ploy. Syria, which maintains 35,000 troops in Lebanon, wants any agreement on Lebanon to include a return of the Golan Heights, strategic territory Israel took from Syria in 1967.

Yet there have been signals, read with much interest in Israel, that if Israel does try its hand with a pullout, it could be pleasantly surprised. Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazzi said this week that Hizbullah would have achieved its goals if Israel pulls out. Israel is worried that if it leaves the nine-mile-deep zone, war will come closer to home.

The reason longstanding Syrian opposition has not completely squelched diplomatic activity surrounding Israel's initiative could lie in a quiet offer by Israel to accept the principle of relinquishing the Golan.

Israeli media recently reported that Netanyahu offered to resume the Israeli-Syrian talks at the point at which they left off when the late Yitzhak Rabin was premier. In return, Syria must agree not to stand in the way of an Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon.

Israeli officials have denied those reports. But Uri Lubrani, an Israeli government adviser on Lebanese affairs, suggests that there is a connection.

"We would consider any flexibility on the part of Syria as a very meaningful confidence-building measure toward the revival of the Syrian track," he says.

Netanyahu's gambit was met with rare praise in the Israeli press because it succeeded, commentators said, in making Syria and Lebanon look like they were the ones holding up a solution to the conflict. Others said it was about more than trying to put some shine on Netanyahu's agenda.

"There is a feeling ... that this time we are more serious, and we are, because there has been growing pressure inside Israel to leave Lebanon, and the government is finding it more difficult to ignore that," says David Kimche, head of the Israel Council on Foreign Relations and a former director of the Foreign Ministry.

"It's not a PR move, it's more than that," he says, "but the chances of the other side agreeing to it are not that high."

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