Slow thaw in a Mideast hot zone

June 1 withdrawal by Israel's ally in southern Lebanon hints at

What a difference two weeks can make.

The South Lebanon Army (SLA), Israel's ally in its self-declared "security zone" in southern Lebanon, began withdrawing its troops yesterday from an outpost in Jezzine, north of the zone.

The move is seen by many as a test of whether the Lebanese government would restrain Iranian-backed Hizbullah guerrillas from using the enclave to attack Israeli positions.

Israeli elections May 17 brought down Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister seen as thwarting peace negotiations between Israel and Syria, seen as the power behind the Lebanese government. On the same day, the one political party dedicated to holding on to the strategic Golan Heights - which Israel wrested from Syria in 1967 - failed to win enough votes for a seat in the Knesset, Israel's parliament.

All of which seems to presage long-awaited momentum toward sorting out the complicated leftovers of the Six-Day War of 1967 and Israel's 1982 entry into the Lebanese civil war.

But the political dynamics about to be inherited by Ehud Barak, elected prime minister by a wide margin two weeks ago, are more complex than that.

Officials from the office of his defeated predecessor, Mr. Netanyahu, have confirmed that Netanyahu had continued a dialogue with the Syrians through the European Union's Middle East peace envoy, but stopped short of agreeing to a peace deal with Damascus out of deference to his right-wing constituency.

On another front, the SLA's withdrawal from the Jezzine enclave has raised expectations that the atmosphere could soon be ripe for Israel to pull its own troops out of the buffer area it has occupied since 1985 to protect its northern residents from attack. And at home - especially in disheartened Jewish settlements like this one - it remains unclear whether Mr. Barak has a mandate to consider a withdrawal from the Golan Heights in exchange for peace with Syria.

The withdrawal of the SLA is being closely watched in Israel as a litmus test of the Lebanese government's willingness to secure the area. Israel has for several years floated the idea that it would withdraw from the zone if Lebanon would send in its Army and prevent Hizbullah, or Party of God, from moving to the internationally recognized border to continue attacks on Israel.

Linked to a Golan Heights deal?

But that option is very unattractive to Syria, which would rather use its role as the main powerbroker in Lebanon to pressure Israel - through Hizbullah - to give back the Golan Heights as part of a broader deal.

Concerned that Israel is watching for precedent-setting moves, Lebanese President Selim el-Hus announced Monday that his government would not deploy Lebanese troops in Jezzine. Hizbullah said it also wouldn't enter Jezzine - but would continue strikes on Israeli and SLA positions in the area.

Both Israeli and Lebanese officials urged that not too much be read into the Jezzine withdrawal. The SLA admitted it was making the retreat because of heavy losses it has sustained there in recent months; Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens said the move did not signal the start of a unilateral withdrawal.

That may be because the linkage to a compromise on the Golan is increasingly accepted by Israeli leaders, even in the rightist Likud Party. And that is why the difference two weeks has made casts gloom over the 17,000 Israelis who have moved here over the past 32 years, encouraged by government incentives to help settle a frontier once deemed vital for Israel's security.

Voting for beliefs, not interests

What seemed to make the change in atmosphere even harder to swallow was that Golan residents brought it on themselves. A majority of them voted for Barak, and remarkably few of them voted for the Third Way, a three-year-old centrist party willing to compromise on anything but the Golan Heights.

Most of the Golan residents are ideologically left-leaning - and were originally inspired to move here by the Labor Party. They didn't like the Third Way's seeming attachment to Netanyahu.

"People voted according to their basic beliefs, and not their basic interests," says Avi Zeira, the head of the Golan Residents Committee, blaming his fellow residents for not fighting to keep Netanyahu and the Third Way in power.

Now, there is a gnawing uncertainty over whether they could be forced to leave their homes for peace with a leader most here say they don't trust: Syrian President Hafez al-Assad.

Mr. Zeira argues that Barak doesn't really have a mandate for giving up the Golan because the issue wasn't on the agenda at election time. The prime minister's race was mostly a personality contest mixed in with domestic issues.

Now that there is no political party to represent their interests, Zeira says they'll return to grass-roots protest. In that, he thinks they will find wide sympathy: His desk is strewn with polls showing most Israelis are opposed to giving up the Golan. And he takes solace in the Third Way's major achievement after three years in government: the Golan Law, which requires that any proposed land-for-peace deal must be sent to a national referendum for approval.

"There are many people in Israel who won't accept it, so I don't think it will go quietly. There are people who are ready for a fight," Zeira says.

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