Jewish World Review / April 2, 1998 / 6 Nissan, 5758

A breakthrough in Lebanon?

By Richard Z. Chesnoff

ThE HEADLINES TELL us how badly negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians are mired in mud. But while Israel plays tough and the Palestinians threaten another intifada unless they get their way, a quiet peace deal is shaping up behind the scenes with another of Israel's Arab neighbors: Lebanon.

Recent secret talks in Paris -- and the interlocutor services of both the United States and France - could bring about a badly needed reign of peaceful co-existance along Israel's northern border. That dream deal would include a withdrawal of Israeli troops from the security zone they occupy in southern Lebanon in exchange for a guarantee that Lebanese-based Hezbollah terrorists would be put to heel. It's a state of peace that would be welcomed by both the Christian and Muslim Arabs of southern Lebnanon as well as the tens of thousands of Israelis who live in Galilee towns and villages - all favorite targets for bombardment by Islamic extremists .

The key to success: the ability of Lebanese forces to fill the vacuum left by an Israeli withdrawal. It was Beirut government's failure to secure its southern reaches from Palestinian and Hezbollah guerillas that led Israel to move in to begin with.

Since 1982, Israeli troops have operated in a 9 mile deep sliver of Lebanese land they call the "Lebanese security zone". The object: to contain first the Palestine Liberation Army and now Hezbollah -- the fanatics who also targets Americans and most anyone from the West. The Israelis have been aided in this difficult strategic task by a small Lebanese Christian militia called the "Southern Lebanese Army".

It's been a costly job -- and hasn't always succeeded. Millions in Israeli resources have been spent in Lebanon and most expensive of all, operations there have cost more than 845 young Israeli lives -- something that for small Israel is akin to the US losing 34,000 men.

Sadly, the casualty figures keep rising. Many Israelis look upon the Lebanon battle as their Vietnam - a war you cannot win. Some even call for a unilateral withdrawal - arguing that even if the Lebanese won't cooperate, Israel should just move out.

Israeli military leaders disagree. They contend that would just be too dangerous. But they are pushing for a negotiated withdrawal -- hence the recent secret talks with Lebanese leaders.

Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu has let it be known that he favors such a deal. Cynics claim he's bluffing, that he's merely using the Lebanese card to draw attention away from Bill Clinton's latest peace plan. Under that proposal, Israel would withdraw from another 13 per cent of the West Bank and turn control over to the Palestinians. In exchange, Yasser Arafat would crush terrorists and undertake other security measures he's promised on six previous occasions. Netanyahu at first said no, the plan was unsafe. Now he's apparently proposing a withdrawl of about 10 per cent. Negotiations are underway. But the Israelis fear Clinton will go public anyway to increase pressures on Jerusalem.

The White House would do better to put greater efforts into a Lebanon deal. For that they need an additional dancing partner: Syria and its dictator Hafez Assad, the prime power brokers in Lebanon. If Assad wants to stop Hezbollah, he will -- simply by cutting the flow of Iranian weapons they receive each week. Then he'll give the nod to Lebanese troops. Assad says he won't make any deals on Lebanon without a deal on the Golan Heights - that frighteningly strategic mountain area from which Syria bombarded Israel until Israeli forces captured it in the 1967 Six Day War. But Lebanon is ultimately more important to Assad than even the Golan. So there may be room for a deal. If so, it might even inspire Netanyahu and Arafat to pull themselves out of the mud.


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JWR contributor and veteran journalist Richard Z. Chesnoff is a senior correspondent at US News And World Report and a columnist at the NY Daily News.

©1998, NY Daily News