Finishing Business of '78: Will Israel Exit Lebanon?

On April 1, 1998 Israel's cabinet unanimously accepted UN Security Council Resolution 425 and agreed to the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the southern Lebanese "security zone" occupied since 1978. Yet in accepting the 20-year-old resolution, the cabinet attached a potentially fatal condition: that it receive from Lebanon assurances that the Lebanese army will secure the border and prevent attacks on Israel by Lebanese guerillas.

Elias Hrawi, Lebanon's president, immediately rejected Israel's initiative, saying, "Lebanon will not negotiate with Israel over the withdrawal and Israel must withdraw from the south according to international resolutions."

To the uninitiated, the standoff between Lebanon and Israel must seem utterly baffling. Israel wants out of Lebanon. After years of heartbreaking and useless violence, a significant piece of Arab territory is to be "liberated" peacefully. What's the problem?

The problem is that Israel also occupies the Golan Heights, whose complete return to Syria is the absolute baseline of Syrian willingness to make peace with Israel. Syria, in turn, dominates the politics of Lebanon, supports Israel's enemies and fears that if Israel extricates itself from Lebanon it (Syria) will have lost important leverage over Israel. The refusal of Lebanese politicians to engage Israel even in military-to-military technical talks (which could be easily justified by means of a UN umbrella) reflects a decision made not in Beirut, but in Damascus.

Yet even if Lebanon were free to act, the Israeli initiative would present Beirut with problems. Conventional wisdom has it that Israel's principal enemy in Lebanon, the Hizbullah militia, will not pursue departing Israeli forces into Israel. The largely Shi'a Muslim population of southern Lebanon has not experienced peace for a generation, and will support no one who gratuitously brings more Israeli retaliation on their heads.

If, however, conventional wisdom proves wrong, would the Lebanese army risk reopening the country's civil war by killing guerillas intent on attacking Israel? Even with Syria's "green light," Lebanon's political leaders would still find the border security mission risky. From Israel's perspective, however, why abandon the security zone if, when push comes to shove, the Lebanese army will turn a blind eye to cross-border crime and terrorism?

Surely it must be possible to implement Resolution 425 in a way that achieves all of its objectives - the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Lebanese territory, the restoration of international peace and security (tranquility on the Lebanese-Israeli border), and the return of the authority of the government of Lebanon to the southern part of the country - without harming the equities of the key parties: Lebanon, Israel, and Syria. How might Israel broach the subject of implementation in a manner calculated to attract the cooperation of its neighbors instead of their contempt?

Instead of putting Beirut publicly on the spot, Israel might focus its attention on the UN. The UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), located in southern Lebanon since 1978, is the implementing authority designated by the resolution Israel has just accepted. Israel could notify the UN secretary-general of its intention to withdraw its forces from Lebanon and then confide in UNIFIL its actual timetable. UNIFIL would then secure Lebanon's full cooperation. Absent such cooperation, UNIFIL should be withdrawn forthwith.

Recognizing that the real address for matters of Lebanese political significance is Damascus, Israel could inform Syria of its readiness to resume peace negotiations at the point where they were broken off in early 1996.

That means the principal subject of the negotiations - not their preordained outcome or their only agenda item - will be the return to Syria of territory occupied by Israel in June 1967.

If Israel finds this impossible, one might question its seriousness. By the same token, were Syria's cooperation not forthcoming under this scenario, one might wonder what it would take to engage Damascus. For the sake of the long-suffering people of southern Lebanon, one hopes that the real players on the field - Israel and Syria - are truly ready in 1998 to finish the business of 1978.

* Frederic C. Hof is a partner in Armitage Associates of Arlington, Va. and is the author of Galilee Divided (Westview Press, 1985).

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