Israel's risky pullout from Lebanon

May 16, 2000|By Robert Satloff

NEARLY 17 years after the bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut soured Washington on dealing with the quagmire of Lebanon, that small, strife-torn country is once again poised to take center stage in U.S. Middle East diplomacy.

This time, the precipitating event is Israel's decision to withdraw by July 7 about 1,500 troops from southern Lebanon, where Israel has maintained a 9-mile wide "security zone" against terrorist attacks on northern Israel.

Militarily, Israel's concept of "forward defense" against terrorism has been a success -- virtually no Israeli civilians have died in cross-border incursions since the zone was set up in 1985. Politically, though, the annual toll of about 25 soldiers killed inside Lebanon has proven too high a price for a war-weary Israel.

The result has been a nearly universal demand from across Israel's political spectrum to "quit Lebanon." Then-Labor Party candidate Ehud Barak hitched himself to this wagon in his election campaign a year ago and, as prime minister, has steadfastly promised to fulfill that vow within a year of his taking office, that is, July 7.

Mr. Barak prefers a negotiated withdrawal in the context of an overall peace deal with Lebanon's real power broker, Syrian President Hafez Assad, but the collapse of Syrian-Israeli peace talks last month has forced Israel to pursue Plan B, a unilateral withdrawal.

At first glance, this would appear to be a "win-win" situation for Arabs and Israelis alike. Israelis should benefit by lives saved in Lebanon; Arabs should welcome Israeli withdrawal from Arab land; and the international community should embrace Israel's move as the fulfillment of a longstanding U.N. Security Council demand to leave Lebanon. But in the topsy-turvy world of Middle East politics, when things look too good to be true, they usually are.

Indeed, this "win-win" situation has the potential to be "lose-lose."

For the Israelis, withdrawal may provide Lebanese-based radicals -- like the Iranian-backed Hezbollah or Palestinian rejectionist groups -- the opportunity to base fresh attacks from the international border area, putting Israel's northern communities at heightened risk. At the very least, withdrawal sends a potent message across the Middle East that years of attrition through guerilla warfare -- rather than negotiations -- is the way to force Israel into territorial concessions.

For Syria, the departure of Israeli troops means the loss of a key bargaining chip in talks for a Golan-for-peace deal as well as an unaccustomed spotlight on Syria's own 25-year-old military deployment in Lebanon. That's why Syria has been, at best, lukewarm to the idea. Indeed, as a way to remind Israel of its regional influence and to deflect attention from its own occupation of much of Lebanon, Syria is likely to respond to a unilateral Israeli withdrawal by unleashing terrorist groups under its sway for attacks on Israeli targets.

And for Lebanon itself, the prospect of renewed violence along the border with Israel only means that Lebanese will again be targets in a proxy war between Syria and Israel.

Once behind its own border, only died-in-the-wool Israel-haters will complain when Israel retaliates against unprovoked terrorist acts and katyusha rockets. Israel will probably adopt a Kosovo-type air strategy, punishing Lebanese infrastructure to force the Beirut government to clamp down on radicals on its territory. But the limitations of this strategy are clear -- Damascus, not Beirut, runs the show in Lebanon and before long Israel may climb the escalatory ladder until it faces a direct confrontation with Syria. In a short span, therefore, Syria and Israel -- countries that once stood on the precipice of peace -- may find themselves embroiled in conflict.

After investing so much of his administration in making Arab-Israeli peace, President Clinton surely wants to make sure that his final months in the White House are not marked by Arab-Israeli war. Specifically, Washington should act now to ensure that Israel's courageous withdrawal from Lebanon --to be implemented without clear security guarantees from the Lebanese, Syrians or other Arab parties -- is followed by calm along Israel's northern border.

While the deployment of U.N. forces along the international border is important, the key address for U.S. diplomacy is Damascus.

After rejecting an astonishingly generous Israeli offer to withdraw from the Golan Heights, Mr. Assad now needs to know he will no longer benefit from the status of "potential peacemaker." Instead, the Clinton administration should make clear that it will stand fully behind Israel's right to retaliate against Syrian-inspired terrorism. This added element of deterrence may be the critical element in preventing what many thought was unthinkable -- another Arab-Israeli war.

Robert Satloff is the executive director of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy

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