Long Goodbye in Lebanon Shows Israel's Pullout Woes

Israel's March offer to leave its 'security zone' is still laced with political land mines.

Even as Israeli leaders say they are near a "moment of truth" on a long-promised withdrawal from portions of the West Bank, on another front, recent history shows how what appears to be a promising offer can falter.

Israel's conditional offer in March to pull its troops out of southern Lebanon - to comply with United Nations Security Council Resolution 425 after two decades - might appear to solve part of the Mideast peace puzzle.

But in this last "hot" war zone in the Arab-Israeli conflict, where Israeli troops do battle daily with Shiite Muslim Hizbullah guerrillas, getting out is not so simple.

Israeli-Palestinian peace talks have been at a standstill for about 17 months. But Israel's right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he would consider pulling troops out of the narrow strip of Lebanese territory Israel calls its "security zone," if the Beirut government would guarantee the security of Israel's northern border.

Mr. Netanyahu declared that Israel would set the terms of any pullout. Resolution 425, however, requires that Israel "immediately cease its military action ... and withdraw forthwith."

So after 20 years of demanding an unconditional withdrawal, Lebanon and its big-brother powerbroker Syria - which has some 30,000 of its own troops in Lebanon - say the offer is unacceptable. Syria wants any Lebanon pullout linked to a deal on the Golan Heights, which Israel occupied in 1967.

The diplomatic wrangling this spring was accompanied by a surge in fighting, with guerrillas hitting military positions of Israel and their South Lebanon Army (SLA) militia allies in southern Lebanon. Israel has so far lost only a handful of soldiers in combat in Lebanon this year, compared with 39 last year, when a string of high-profile mishaps - including a helicopter collision in northern Israel that killed another 73 soldiers - sparked calls in Israel for a pullout.

The low death toll now, analysts say, hints that neither side is interested in escalating the conflict. A decade ago three guerrillas were killed for every Israeli, but today the figure is almost 1 to 1.

"The Lebanese say that a pullout on its own won't work without a comprehensive peace," says a Western military analyst in Beirut. "You can't just take one aspect of the problem and expect to solve it just because it suits the Israelis after 20 years."

Hizbullah officially remains coy about Israeli anxieties that it may launch cross-border attacks even after a pullout.

Israel's acceptance of Resolution 425 "tells much about its plight," says Ibrahim Mussawi, the chief Hizbullah spokesman. "We believe that Israel is fed up with casualties. This tells Hizbullah and Lebanon that years of negotiation did nothing, but that resistance made this happen."

Israeli forces crossed into Lebanon in 1978 to stop Palestinian guerrillas from launching operations and rocket attacks against Israel's northern Galilee. Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) were forced to leave Lebanon when Israel made a full-scale invasion that brought it to Beirut in 1982. In the aftermath of that incursion, Hizbullah emerged as a resistance movement. Israel has stayed on in the south, absorbing and inflicting casualties.

"We will always say that Palestine is occupied, but I ask you: Who has to ask for [security] guarantees?" Mr. Mussawi says. "Any withdrawal will be a victory for Hizbullah, but nobody could give a guarantee to Israel. They will pull out even without guarantees - they have to pull out."

That seems to be what Syrian officials are concerned about, analysts say. Senior Lebanese officials were summoned to Syria's capital, Damascus, often this spring to ensure that Syria and Lebanon move in lock-step - and that Lebanon makes no separate deal with the Israel that might jeopardize Syria's ability to pressure Israel for its own Golan deal.

Ultimately, withdrawal may occur in stages. In any case, despite continued raids on Hizbullah by Israeli aircraft - including one on Tuesday - a stepping up of the conflict seems unlikely.

"Escalation has its own dynamic here and can cause changes that neither side wants," says Timur Goksel, the senior political adviser to the UN Intervention Force in Lebanon.

"Israel is concerned for their reputation. To leave under pressure is almost unacceptable. So southern Lebanon has reverted back to the waiting mode again," Mr. Goksel says. "If Israel is waiting for a guarantee that is signed and sealed, they will be waiting for a long time."

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