Israeli peace efforts set back

Hezbollah attack kills 5 soldiers

approach to Syria talks rejected

Cracks in coalition widen

March 02, 2000|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak suffered setbacks on two fronts yesterday, as a guerrilla attack killed five soldiers of Israel's proxy militia in South Lebanon and the parliament voted against his approach to peace with Syria.

The twin blows added to the problems that Barak faces in forging a deal with Syria that will be accepted by his shaky coalition government. They came despite increasing signs that after an impasse of more than a month, Syria and Israel may soon return to the peace table.

The Hezbollah guerrilla attack outside the village of Ain Qinia brought to 12 the number of South Lebanon Army soldiers killed this year and raised again the prospect that the war in the Israeli-occupied zone could escalate. In fighting elsewhere, a Lebanese civilian was killed and three more SLA fighters and another civilian were wounded.

Hezbollah described the explosion, on an Ain Qinia roadside near an SLA jeep, as a "dexterous ambush."

But an SLA spokesman called it a blatant violation of a 1995 accord that bars attacks on or from civilian areas. In Israel, the army said it "views severely the activation of a demolition charge within a populated area, as well as the Hezbollah firing into a Lebanese village."

Hezbollah says it is fighting to drive Israeli forces out of South Lebanon. Barak has vowed to withdraw by July but wants to do so peacefully under an agreement with Syria and Lebanon and not appear to be forced out.

Syria, which controls much of what happens in Lebanon, allows Hezbollah to pummel Israeli and South Lebanese forces so long as the guerrillas refrain from firing rockets at civilian areas across the border in Israel, which would invite retaliation against Lebanon.

Seeking concessions

Yesterday's fighting indicated that Syria has no intention of ensuring quiet along the Israeli-Syrian border unless it gets tangible concessions from Israel.

After the peace talks foundered, the border war filled the vacuum to create an atmosphere of hatred.

Israel responded to the killing of seven of its soldiers last month with airstrikes that knocked out three Lebanese power stations, embittering Lebanon's civilians.

Israel's foreign minister, David Levy, threatened more vengeance, "child for child soul for soul blood for blood." From Syria came anti-Semitic attacks by its state-controlled press that challenged the Holocaust's existence.

The conflict has made it harder for Barak, who entered office on a pledge to forge agreements with Syria and the Palestinians, to convince his parliament that peace is worth the price.

Political obstacle

Yesterday, he encountered his biggest political obstacle when parliament voted 60 to 53 for a bill that would doom Barak's chances of winning a public referendum to return the Golan Heights to Syria in exchange for peace.

The bill would require him to win approval from a majority of registered voters, rather than a majority of votes cast, for the referendum to succeed. Winning would therefore require a large majority -- about 65 percent -- of votes cast. The formula would also weaken the power of Israel's Arab voters, who are expected to vote overwhelmingly for a withdrawal from the Golan.

Barak promised during his election campaign that the public would be able to accept or reject a peace deal with Syria in a referendum, which would be Israel's first such public test.

The parliament vote threw Barak's coalition into a crisis. Assembled with the aim of giving him a broad base of support for his peace moves, the coalition of centrists, leftists and Orthodox Jews has proved nearly impossible for the prime minister to manage. An Orthodox party, Shas, has openly sought budget concessions for its support.

Shas and two other coalition parties voted with the opposition yesterday. The vote was only preliminary, and the bill is expected to be buried in committee. But the message to Barak was clear.

"The Knesset told the prime minister, `You have no majority for getting off the Golan,' " said Deputy Education Minister Shaul Yaholom of the National Religious Party, one of the dissident members of the coalition.

`I will take care of it'

Barak sounded confident afterward, telling reporters: "The coalition didn't choose me. I was elected by 1.8 million citizens, not the coalition. I established the coalition. As to what concerns the coalition, leave it to me. I will take care of it at the appropriate time."

The vote could help Barak drive a hard bargain with Syria by showing that nothing less than a full peace would pass muster at home. Alternatively, Syria could sense Barak's political weakness and conclude that his government is too fragile to fulfill an agreement.

In a signal of flexibility toward Syria, Barak strongly hinted Sunday that he would be willing to withdraw from the Golan to the border that existed before Israel seized the plateau in the June 1967 war. His suggestion seemed to please Syria's leaders.

Hopes of restarting talks

Yesterday, Barak's deputy defense minister, Ephraim Sneh, said he had a gut feeling that talks would resume in a month.

The European Union's Mideast envoy, Miguel Moratinos, was less definitive, but said: "We will engage between now and the next two months in very intense efforts to give a diplomatic, political solution to the situation. I think we have a window of opportunity from now to the summer, and we must work very hard."

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