by Peter Hirschberg
(IPS) JERUSALEM -- The initial reactions bordered on the euphoric.
Lebanese citizens were pouring into the streets of Beirut in open defiance of Damascus, and Israelis were cheering. Talk in Israel of a democratic, Syria-free neighbor to its north abounded. Some even speculated Lebanon might be the next Arab country -- after Egypt and Jordan -- to forge a peace treaty with Israel.
One of those was Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, who spoke of the possibility of making peace with Lebanon once it was free of Syrian military occupation. In fact, a Syrian withdrawal and a disarming of the guerrilla party Hezbollah, combined with progress on Israel-Palestinian talks, he said, could be the key to better relations between Israel and other Muslim countries.
Such developments, he said, would contribute "to the stability of the Mideast, and the possibility of us conducting a dialogue with many more Arab and Islamic countries."
But the optimism has cooled a little, and has been replaced in part by Israeli concerns over how developments in Lebanon might affect its northern border.
Some security officials have expressed fears that Syria might allow Hezbollah, which operates with the backing of Damascus, to cause incidents on the border with Israel as it withdraws, in order to illustrate how Syria's presence in Lebanon is required to ensure stability.
Foreign Minister Shalom also told United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan in New York last week that Israel had information Syria was beefing up its intelligence forces in Lebanon, even as President Bashar Assad spoke of withdrawing his forces. Vice Premier Shimon Peres went even further, actually calling for peace talks between Israel and Lebanon following a Syrian withdrawal. "If Syria pulls out of Lebanon completely," he said, "it will be possible to embark on diplomatic steps toward an agreement."
Labor Party lawmaker and former deputy defense minister Ephraim Sneh is one of the more circumspect voices in Israel: "Syria won't give up easily in Lebanon," he told IPS.
Sneh, who was commander of Israel's security zone in south Lebanon in 1981-82, says Damascus will try to build a coalition to counter the more affluent Sunni-Maronite-Druze coalition that wants it out. Hezbollah, which is engaged heavily in Lebanon's underclass, he adds, will be a "pillar" of this coalition, and if internal hostilities erupt, it could "spill over in our direction."
He also warns of another scenario, where south Lebanon is "consolidated as Hezbollah-land, as a pro-Syrian stronghold. That won't be good for Israel. Hezbollah has 13,000 (Syrian-supplied) rockets and missiles and they can be aimed at Israel. That is remarkable fire power."
Since Israel withdrew from south Lebanon in mid-2000 after occupying a buffer zone there for almost 20 years, the border between the two countries has been largely quiet, with occasional flare-ups between Hezbollah fighters and Israeli troops.
The most serious incident was the kidnapping in October 2000 of three Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah during a routine border patrol. Their bodies -- the men were apparently killed during the initial clash or died of their wounds shortly after -- were returned to Israel in January 2004, as part of a prisoner exchange deal in which Israel freed more than two dozen Lebanese and other Arab prisoners.
After Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, killing thousands on its march to Beirut, it withdrew its forces from the capital city to a buffer zone in the south of the country which was meant to prevent the firing of Katyusha rockets into Israel as well as attempts to infiltrate into the north of the country.
But as time went on, Hezbollah began to wage an effective guerilla war against Israeli forces. With the troop death toll mounting steadily, extra-parliamentary groups in Israel launched a campaign calling on the government to "bring the boys back home." Former Labor Party leader Ehud Barak adopted this as a campaign pledge, and after winning the election he did just that, unilaterally withdrawing all Israeli forces in May 2000 to the internationally recognized border.
While the pullout has brought long stretches of quiet to the border region, some in Israel still fear that with Hezbollah effectively controlling south Lebanon, the potential for a major flareup remains.. The organization, which operates also with backing from Iran, has made it clear that it is opposed to a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon. Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah recently accused the anti-Syrian opposition in Lebanon of "collaborating with Israel."
Until not long ago, many in the Israeli security establishment viewed Syria as a stabilising force in Lebanon: Damascus was willing to allow Hezbollah to operate -- against Israel as well -- but only up to a point that usually did not precipitate a major conflagration. But the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the recent growing American pressure on Syria, and Hezbollah's backing of some Palestinian armed groups in a bid to undermine the latest calm in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have all changed that view.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, along with his Foreign Minister Shalom, have said in recent days that Syria must completely withdraw from Lebanon, and that a partial pullout is not acceptable. Israeli leaders also warned that Syria might withdraw its troops but retain control by leaving its intelligence units behind. There have also been reports of contacts between senior Israeli government officials and Lebanese opposition figures.
These public comments and the leaks about channels of communication between Israel and Lebanon have raized Washington's ire. U.S. officials are said to have told their Israeli counterparts to tone down their statements, for fear they will undermine the anti-Syrian opposition in Lebanon and serve the interests of the pro-Syrian forces like Hezbollah. American officials are also worried that reports about Israeli calls for the United States not to relent in its pressure on Syria will depict them as doing Israel's bidding -- a widely held image that will not serve their interests in the region.
For now, Ephraim Sneh suggests Israel's leaders adopt a cautious, sober approach. "It is pleasant to see young demonstrators on the streets," he says. "But any joy is premature."
March 18, 2005 (http://www.albionmonitor.com) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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