Fri, 11 Feb 2000

Mideast peace: Damascus holds the key

By Michael Birnbaum

MUNICH (DPA): War has broken out once more in the Middle East. Twice in the space of 24 hours the Israeli air force has launched massive reprisal attacks on targets in South Lebanon. The strikes destroyed three power plants and damaged a house which was allegedly being used as a base by the Hezbollah guerrilla army. The Israelis action came in response to attacks on Israel by the Shia "warriors of god". Hezbollah operates with the support of Syria and Iran.

The escalation has left six Israeli soldiers dead and dozens of Lebanese civilians wounded. Many inhabitants of northern Israel have taken to hiding in bunkers for fear of Hezbollah revenge attacks. This, the last active front in the Arab-Israeli conflict, could not withstand the prospect of peace. Southern Lebanon has exploded and the spirit of reconciliation has gone up in smoke.

Israeli Prime Minister and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, a much decorated ex-general, could not have responded to the continuous Hezbollah attacks of the last two weeks with anything other than a counter strike. Anyone acting with aggression toward the citizens of northern Israel must reckon with reprisals. This is the traditional pattern of behavior. Surrounded by enemies, in the past this has been the only way Israel could guarantee its survival.

But it is precisely this knee-jerk reflex which makes Israel's politicians so predictable, and vulnerable too. Just five years ago peace beckoned in the Middle East. It was bombed off the agenda.

At that time Yitzhak Rabin was prime minister. He was assassinated by an Israeli in November 1995. To prevent Shimon Peres returning to power and completing the work Rabin had started, as his executor of his will one might say, Palestinians destroyed the chances of his moderate Israel Labour Party with a series of bomb attacks in the weeks preceding the general election.

Hardliner Benyamin Netanyahu and his Likud Party won in May 1996 and the peace process was put on ice. Netanyahu left his successor Barak a valuable parting gift. After being voted out of office in June 1999, he dispatched the Israeli air force to Lebanon once more. Before the recent attacks, that had been the last Israeli action against its neighbor.

In the intervening period the front had been mostly quiet -- a vital condition for resurrecting the peace process. Only by eliminating an immediate and visible Israeli military threat was Barak able to restart negotiations and lay down a timetable with Palestinian president, Yasser Arafat, for handing over the occupied territories. Thus was Barak able to announce the intended withdrawal of Israeli troops from Southern Lebanon before July of this year. The Israeli army has been occupying the so-called Security Zone as a buffer to safeguard its northern border for 16 years.

Barak's military restraint was similarly the key to getting arch enemy Syria back to the negotiating table at the beginning of the year. However, each and every facet of the peace process had already fallen on rocky ground even before the clashes in Lebanon. Syria is demanding the unconditional surrender of the Golan Heights as a pre-condition to negotiations while Barak is fighting with the Palestinians over every square inch of the West Bank.

Next Sunday's deadline for the drawing up of a framework agreement with Arafat had long since been abandoned. The violence in Lebanon has now driven the whole peace process into a dead end.

Barak has said "We don't want to slam the door shut." But he has also stressed that the overriding responsibility of any government is the protection of its citizens. "Peacemaker" Barak must take care lest his troops desert the flag. The bunker mentality is setting in.

This apparently inevitable Israeli reaction has in turn provoked the correspondingly unavoidable reaction amongst Israel's opponents. The alliance of Arab states which had looked so ragged at the seams is now uniting in its condemnation of Israel's air strikes.

Ironically, if there is one state which holds the key to a reasonable solution to this conflict, that state is Syria. With a presence of approximately 35,000 soldiers in Lebanon, Syria is the country's most powerful authority. If President Havez Asad were so inclined, he could cut off Hezbollah's support from Iran and arrange a cease-fire. It is up to Asad to make the next move. He must tie the hands of Hezbollah or risk escalation.