Chaos in Lebanon endangers Mideast

Face to face: Loss of buffer gives terrorists chance to foment wider conflict, unless states prevent it.

May 24, 2000

DISINTEGRATION of Israel's buffer zone in Lebanon and its satellite South Lebanon Army of friendly Lebanese Christians -- before negotiation of a peace on Israel's northern border -- threatens wider conflict.

It comes as a direct and unintended consequence of Prime Minister Ehud Barak's pledge to the Israeli electorate of a unilateral pull-out by July 7.

Today, Hezbollah terrorists control Lebanon's side of the border. Their rockets are closer, their choice of targets wider, their points of entry more numerous.

It is arguable that 22 years of Israeli presence in Lebanon has not made Israelis safer. It has, however, kept terrorism to manageable limits. That allowed Syria to tolerate or encourage it from Lebanon, while preventing any from originating in Syria.

Israel will of course now retaliate against any new outrages. Against whom? Lebanon would provide the targets. Syrian forces and innocent Lebanese might be among them.

This situation is fraught with dangers for Israel, Lebanon -- most of whose people only want restoration of their former peace -- and Syria. Israel is much stronger than Syria for any one-front conventional war.

That gives the weakest power in the region, the Islamic terrorist group Hezbollah, the decisive hand to manipulate sovereign states. President Hafez el Assad, who has always had a cautious streak, may wish no war with Israel. But Hezbollah can force that, unless Mr. Assad and Mr. Barak don't let it.

The destabilization and sudden menace could at least concentrate the minds of adversaries on the mutual need for peace between them. They had seemed content to await solution of the more complex Israel-Palestinian problems.

They should now see the urgency of a peace that will settle all issues and clamp Lebanese sovereignty on the turf that Hezbollah seized yesterday. Only Syria can now stop Hezbollah from actsof terror against Israel. It hasevery national interest and Mr.Assad's dynastic interest in doing so.

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