Sat, 12 Feb 2000

Rivals jostle for the best view from Golan

By Martin Woollacott

LONDON: An Israeli conscript in south Lebanon told a journalist this week: "Nobody wants to be the last soldier to die in Lebanon." Another said that "the sooner we fly away from here the better". Such sentiments reveal a young Israel that has no answer to the question: "Why are we in Lebanon?" and wants no more of an endless war in a zone which could have been designed expressly to demonstrate the limitations of military power.

The Israelis effectively annexed this slice of Arab territory in 1984 as they withdrew after the Lebanon war. It became a theater in which the Israelis and their south Lebanese allies contended with the increasingly well-equipped Hizbollah militia, which also developed over those years into a political and social movement throughout Lebanon.

The zone has been as much fly paper for Israel's own young men as it has been a deterrent to attacks on northern Israel. Ehud Barak, the Israeli prime minister, is committed to withdrawal from Lebanon by this summer with or without a peace agreement between Syria and Israel. But he desperately needs that agreement because, without it, withdrawal might simply set the stage for a new war on the border with Hizbollah.

Peace with Syria is of course a prize whose value goes far beyond ending the bloodletting in the security zone. Together with a consequential agreement with the Lebanese and with a final settlement with the Palestinians, it would complete the long, halting movement away from war that began with the Israeli- Egyptian peace in 1979.

It would not end hostility between Arabs and Israelis, but, especially if the Palestinian settlement is crafted more justly than at the moment seems likely, it would make the Middle East a more comfortable place for Israel. For Syria, peace is almost equally desirable.

The loss of the Golan Heights in the 1967 war compromised the legitimacy of a regime which had spoken grandly of liberating all Palestine but instead failed to protect its own territory, and Havez Asad inherited that problem when he became undisputed Syrian leader.

By the early 1990s, after the Russians ceased to be a factor, it was clear to him that the Golan could only be restored to Syrian rule through a new relationship between Syria and the United States and a settlement with Israel. For America an Israeli-Syrian bargain would crown years of mediation efforts, and it would help sustain President Clinton's claim to have been successful in international affairs, and, by extension, buttress Gore's campaign.

If Barak, Asad, and Clinton all want a peace agreement, why are we in the present mess? The talks that began hopefully, if belatedly, in Washington in December had by January been suspended by Israel, on the grounds, apparently, that Syria would not discuss issues of security and water until absolute clarity had been achieved on the territory it would receive in the event of an agreement.

The Israelis want arrangements on permitted military deployments and on surveillance which would make surprise attack difficult, and they want a bargain on the Golan's substantial water resources.

The Syrians see Israel's demands on these matters as excessive, but in any case will not talk in detail until the territorial issue is locked up. The suspension was followed by a sudden flurry of Hizbollah attacks, and those attacks led to Israeli retaliation, including the bombing of Lebanese power stations.

There is controversy over who broke the "rules" of engagement between Hizbollah and the Israelis. This code permits action against military targets, as long as it is not launched from civilian settlements, and forbids action against civilian targets inside and outside the zone, like Israeli towns, or Lebanese power stations.

Israel may or may not be right in saying that Hizbollah attacks came from villages, which would be a violation, but most agree that the Israeli reaction was grossly disproportionate. A round of hostilities could develop which would diminish the chances that the negotiations will resume.

A peace which had seemed close might then be added to the Middle East's long list of "missed opportunities", for Clinton will soon be a lame duck even in foreign affairs, Asad is ailing, and Barak has been weakened by scandal, as has his ally on Syrian peace, President Ezer Weizman.

It is hard to believe that Syria was completely unaware of Hizbollah's dispositions. But Damascus did not necessarily plan the attacks as a means of putting pressure on the Barak government. Hizbollah has had new weapons from Iran, its other outside patron, in recent months.

The arrival of new weapons with better range and penetration could, conceivably, have set all this off as Hizbollah fighters saw and seized tactical opportunities. There is another explanation. U.S. intelligence, according to the Washington Post, has noted a pattern of increased Iranian support for both Hizbollah and Hamas consistent with an effort to disrupt the peace process.

As usual with Iran, such actions are rarely undertaken by the whole government, and they could even be part of the maneuvering over elections there. It would not be the first time the Iranians have acted in such a way. Their encouragement of Hizbollah and Hamas in 1996 helped bury an earlier effort to achieve an Israeli-Syrian peace agreement.

One of those involved in that effort was Itamar Rabinovich, the chief Israeli negotiator. He wrote later, in his study of why the four years of negotiations between 1992 and 1996 failed, that "for adversaries like Israel and Syria to make the difficult decisions that produce an agreement, a combination of pain and hope is required. The pain makes the status quo unbearable, the hope and vision of a better future facilitate the decision".

This time round there is both more pain and more hope, and thus a better chance of success. But Rabinovich also marked a difficulty touching both sides, which is that peace has to be presented to the public in each country in a way that meets their preoccupations and prejudices, or as he put it with regard to the Syrians, with "a very particular definition of peace and the procedure that led to it".

What the two sides demand, in other words, may be less what they objectively need than what they think their publics can bear. Syria's preoccupation with territory and sovereignty clashes with Israel's preoccupation with highly visible arrangements for security. It may well be possible to close off the present round of violence and get back to the table, but unless these critical differences of presentation can be finessed, what both countries want may nevertheless continue to elude them.

-- Guardian News Service