Prague, 5 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The war of attrition in South Lebanon may have inched closer this week to an end as Israel -- instead of launching a massive counterattack to avenge the death of a top general -- plunged into debate over how to bring home its troops.
For the last two decades Israel has followed a simple formula in its relations with adversaries in Lebanon: hit us, and we will hit you much harder. That led many observers to expect the Israeli army to retaliate for Sunday's bombing assassination of General Erez Gerstein with an immediate and overwhelming strike against the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah similar to its Grapes of Wrath operation against the same militia three years ago.
Immediately after Gerstein was killed by a remote-controlled roadside bomb, Israel bombarded Hezbollah positions in southern and eastern Lebanon and Israel's army chief promised to continue striking with land, air and sea operations. But no larger reprisals have yet been launched and instead Israel appears paralyzed by a rapidly widening political debate over how to leave Lebanon.
That debate now dominates Israel's electoral campaign. Both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of the ruling Likud party and the opposition Labor party's candidate, Ehud Barak, promised two days ago to get Israeli troops out within a year of the elections, due May 17.
Netanyahu took the debate still further on Wednesday by speaking for the first time of a unilateral Israeli withdrawal, accompanied by unspecified security arrangements. Previously he had ruled out any unilateral withdrawal unless an agreement was first reached with Beirut to guarantee the security of Israel's northern border. Both Beirut and Syria -- the key power-broker in Lebanon -- have refused.
Labor's Barak said he would have Israeli troops out by June of next year by negotiating directly with Syria and by pressing the international community to deploy an interim force in south Lebanon.
Analysts say that the intense campaign debate reflects a broad sentiment among Israelis that the war in south Lebanon is no longer worth the casualties.
Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 to drive the Palestine Liberation Organization from Beirut and since 1985 has held a self-declared security zone in southern Lebanon it says protects its border from guerilla infiltrations. Holding the security zone has cost Israel an average of 20 to 30 deaths a year as Israeli soldiers now skirmish daily with Lebanese Shiite fighters determined to evict them from the country. Since the beginning of this year, seven Israelis have already been killed in the zone.
David Mack, a regional expert and former U.S. ambassador now at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C., says Israeli public opinion increasingly sees involvement in southern Lebanon as too costly. Mack spoke by telephone with RFE/RL:
"An Israeli policy which began with the invasion [of Lebanon] in 1982 has been bankrupt for a long time, in the sense of actually providing a long-term security for Israel without requiring too high a price in terms of its relations with its neighbors and the wear and tear on the Israeli defense forces."
Mack says that many Israelis are now concerned that they are locked into a war in south Lebanon which many Lebanese regard as a war of national liberation. The war pits Israeli forces chiefly against the Iranian-financed Hezbollah, which originated in reaction to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and has since gained mounting popular support. David Mack says:
"There has been a lot of support generated for Hezbollah in the Lebanese political spectrum because of its activity in south Lebanon. In effect, Hezbollah has become a major political player in [Lebanon] whereas it might have been marginalized if it had not been for the fact that it has come to represent a national cause, the expulsion of the Israeli occupation from south Lebanon."
But if Israel's war in south Lebanon has come to resemble a classic case of a modern army fighting an unwinnable war abroad against highly-motivated guerillas intent on national liberation, withdrawing from it is no easy matter.
The guerilla war is complicated by broader regional politics which tie Israeli, Lebanese and Syrian interests into a tangled knot which so far has proved impossible to untie.
Syria, which regards Lebanon as its protectorate and keeps some 35,000 troops there, has long encouraged the Hezbollah as a tool to force Israel to return the Golan Heights in exchange for security guarantees in south Lebanon. Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in 1967.
Israel and Syria most recently held regional peace talks in 1995 and 1996, and Israel's then Labor government agreed in principle to exchange land for peace. But the talks were suspended after Netanyahu's government rejected that formula, calling Syrian demands too high.
Mack says that each of the pullback options which Israeli politicians are now discussing -- a unilateral or a negotiated exit from south Lebanon -- carries high risks for any Israeli leader who implements them.
A unilateral withdrawal without security guarantees would leave Israel with the problem of an unsecured northern border. Some hardline Israeli politicians back a policy of threatening Beirut with massive retaliation if the Lebanese army does not police its side of the frontier. But that still leaves the problem of Syria. David Mack says:
"I myself tend to be skeptical ... that a unilateral withdrawal is the answer, although ... a unilateral withdrawal is certainly something that the Israelis out of a sense of frustration with their inability to negotiate a wider agreement with Syria might try. If so, I suspect that the Syrians would make difficulties for them in the future in south Lebanon."
Any negotiations with Syria, on the other hand, are sure to be difficult and to involve the Golan Heights. Netanyahu said this week he will not pay what he called an exaggerated price for a deal with Syria and charged Barak would give away too much.
Negotiations are also likely to require guarantees by the international community, which already has been trying to make peace in southern Lebanon for decades without success.
The United Nations passed a resolution in 1978 demanding Israeli forces withdraw from southern Lebanon and later deployed UN monitors. Today, the monitors are still there while the Israelis and the Hezbollah continue a fight which so far has been as impossible to end as to win.