Mon, 22 May 2000

Hesitant France courted to take key role in Lebanon

By Paul Taylor

LONDON (Reuters): In one of the richer ironies of recent Middle East history, Israel and the United States are courting France to take a key role in securing peace in Lebanon after an Israeli withdrawal, but Paris is hesitant.

Israeli and U.S. governments have long tried to block French efforts to win a bigger place in Middle East peacemaking because of France's avowed pro-Arab sympathies. They only reluctantly conceded a minor role to the French in monitoring a shaky ceasefire in southern Lebanon after a major flare-up in 1996.

But with Israel planning to withdraw its troops unilaterally from Lebanon by July 7, Paris may hold one key to whether that pullout goes smoothly or triggers escalating violence.

"Only the French can give the UN force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) real muscle and enable it to play a serious peacekeeping role after the Israelis are gone," a Western diplomat said.

"The Lebanese army is unlikely to move into the south so UNIFIL is the best hope of filling the security vacuum."

France first said it would consider sending reinforcements to UNIFIL only if there was a peace agreement between Israel and Syria, the dominant power in Lebanon.

But the failure of U.S.-brokered Israeli-Syrian peace talks and Israel's decision to pull out of Lebanon anyway have created a new opportunity -- as well as new risks -- for Paris.

"(UN Security Council) resolution 425 never said the withdrawal had to be a negotiated one," French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine told reporters in Paris last Thursday.

Asked whether France would send troops, he said: "The debate is completely open. The decision has not been taken."

The French could greatly boost their influence in Lebanon, a former French protectorate, and earn prestige across the Middle East if they were able to help avert a potential mini-war.

However, if things went wrong, President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, rivals for the 2002 presidential election, could face the prospect of French soldiers in Lebanon coming home in body bags for the third time in 20 years.

"There will probably be no peace to keep in South Lebanon in the coming weeks," said Paris-based Lebanese analyst Ghassan Salame.

If the French did not participate in a strengthened UNIFIL, "the stakes are really high because of the risk of seeing United Nations troops withdrawn under fire", Salame said.

Suspected Iranian-backed militants blew up a French barracks in Beirut in 1984, killing more than 50 soldiers. U.S. troops in an international peacekeeping force suffered even heavier casualties in a suicide bombing, leading to their withdrawal.

Because of those memories, there is no question of the United States sending troops back to Lebanon. Nor is Britain, the other major European military power, contemplating a mission in Lebanon because it has too many other commitments from Northern Ireland and the Balkans to Sierra Leone.

But France, which has a robust attitude towards military casualties, is seriously considering a role despite having lost more men in the mid-1980s in UNIFIL.

Officially, Paris is waiting for UN special envoy Terje Roed- Larsen to report to the Security Council this week on the modalities of the Israeli withdrawal.

Unofficially, diplomats say France would want clear signals from Lebanese Hizbollah guerrillas, as well as from Syria and Iran which back them, that its presence would be welcome and its soldiers would not become a target for anti-Israeli gunmen.

Such assurances are by no means certain. Syria is angry at its failure to wrest the entire occupied Golan Heights back from Israel as the price for letting it out of Lebanon.

And hardliners who control the Iranian security services may be loath to give up a proxy battlefront with the Zionist enemy.

Without tacit Syrian and Iranian cooperation, UNIFIL could become the meat in the sandwich between Hizbollah and possibly radical Palestinian groups in Lebanon, and a vengeful Israel.

Diplomats say Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has pledged to withdraw totally from Lebanese land, air and sea space to ensure that the United Nations will certify Israel has met its obligation under the 18-year-old resolution.

In return, the Israelis want the international community to take responsibility for preventing attacks on their territory after the pullout.

In another ironic twist, diplomats say the countries which have been pressing Israel to get out of Lebanon since 1978 are now privately urging it not to leave too precipitately.

Syria, Lebanon and Western powers fear a sudden Israeli pullout before July 7 could create a dangerous vacuum before security arrangements for the south can be mapped out.

But no mother wants her son to be the last Israeli soldier to die in Lebanon, and Israel's Lebanese militia ally in its so- called "security zone", the South Lebanon Army (SLA), becomes less reliable as the deadline nears.

Diplomats say another condition for a French role would be that Israel disarm and disband the SLA to minimize the danger of clashes between Hizbollah and the militia once Israeli troops are gone.

SLA commanders are likely to be given shelter in Israel or possibly France, but rank-and-file militiamen, and civilians who commuted to work in Israel during the occupation, are likely to stay in hope of amnesty from the Lebanese authorities.