Prague, 24 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Western press commentary today continues to focus largely on southern Lebanon, where Israeli troops have completed a hurried withdrawal after 22 years of occupation. Many comments are critical of what is described as the "chaotic" or "catastrophic" nature of the Israeli departure. Others underline the dangers ahead in the area. All see the event as a watershed in recent Middle Eastern history.
Here is a brief, representative selection of the unusual flood of commentary on Lebanon:
WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE: The worst violence almost certainly lies ahead
Two U.S. newspapers compare Israel's long, violence-ridden occupation of southern Lebanon to the U.S. involvement in Vietnam more than a quarter of a century ago. The Wall Street Journal Europe finds that "the comparison is especially apt now that Israel's sudden withdrawal has turned into a rout, leaving in its wake a betrayed ally, a critically endangered civilian population and a footloose horde of Hizbollah thugs who have good reason to believe that their terrorist acts have finally paid off."
The editorial goes on: "We suppose this news must come as a real head-scratcher for those who've spent [many] years loudly calling on Israel to withdraw. For the logic of the peace process gurus has been that unilateral territorial concessions by Israel would yield fabulous dividends in security, prosperity and the fellowship of man."
The paper adds: "For Israelis themselves, however, the peace dividend has yet to materialize. The West Bank is now coming off one of its worst spates of violence in recent memory, and that's after Israel relinquished control of three Jerusalem suburbs to the Palestinian Authority. Syria, for its part, grew more, not less, truculent following Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's promise in March to get out of Lebanon." And, the editorial warns, "the worst violence almost certainly lies ahead."
WASHINGTON POST: Israel's self-proclaimed 'security zone' has become an insecurity zone
In a news analysis for the Washington Post, correspondent Lee Hockstader says: "With the swift unraveling of its two-decade occupation of southern Lebanon, Israel's own version of Vietnam has come crashing into the nation's consciousness this week, propelled by televised images of mayhem at its northern border. And much as America's withdrawal from Vietnam ignited a searing national debate, Israel's pullout from Lebanon has generated finger-pointing, recrimination and denial."
The analysis continues: "Already, the argument about who 'lost' Lebanon, who 'betrayed' Israel's Lebanese allies and who 'humiliated' Israel's vaunted army is audible in the political debate. And it is easy to imagine it festering until the next general elections, then returning with a vengeance to haunt Barak and his [political] allies."
Hockstader adds: "Barak, who won a landslide election a year ago, promised in his campaign to bring the troops home in a year. But," he notes, "the abstract notion that Israel could get out quickly and cleanly -- and with little risk to its own security -- was shattered by the unseemly military reality. 'Retreats,' said a popular Israeli radio personality, 'are not photogenic.'"
"Particularly not this one," the analyst comments. "In a sequence of events whose speed surprised nearly everyone here, Israel's self-proclaimed 'security zone' has become an insecurity zone, transformed from a more or less stable, if messy, status quo to something closer to, if still not quite, pandemonium."
SUEDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG: Many problems are deeply rooted in Lebanon itself
In Germany's Sueddeutsche Zeitung, Heiko Flottau says in a commentary that Israeli withdrawal "marks the end of an era for war-torn Lebanon, but the country's problems remain unsolved." Writing from Jerusalem, he adds: "Today, jubilant crowds are celebrating the liberation of south Lebanon. The terrorist, Islamist Hizbollah militia is at the peak of its power. But in south Lebanon, the Shiite-oriented Hizbollah will still have to compete for primacy with the rival Amal militia, perhaps violently."
"The biggest problem facing Lebanon," Flottau argues, "is the fact that it still hasn't come to terms politically with its years of war and all their implications. Many Lebanese still believe that outsiders are responsible for the fate they suffered. Today's wild victory celebrations threaten to once again obscure the fact that the roots of many of religiously split Lebanon's problems and disputes are, like the land's enduring cedars, deeply rooted in Lebanon itself."
INFORMATION: Syria is the greatest woe the Middle East will have to handle
Denmark's daily Information agrees with Flottau, writing in an editorial: "The Israeli withdrawal does not mark the end of the Lebanese tragedy. That's true," it says, "because -- among other things -- the fate of the thousands of Israeli-supported 'puppets' who fought for the [Israeli-allied] Christian South Lebanese Army is still unclear. Many of them have already fled the region, but they will continue to pose a danger to stability and permanent peace."
"It is also unclear," the paper adds, "what will now happen to Lebanon's 360,000 Palestinian refugees [who constitute about 10 percent of the country' population]. The Lebanese government has repeatedly insisted on their return to northern Israel, where
they originally came from, but this option is likely to be rejected by Tel Aviv." It goes on to cite "another potential threat to the peace process in the Middle East -- [the recently] renewed tension between Palestinian and Israeli authorities. This," the editorial notes, "has resulted in deep skepticism by the Palestinian population -- the first step toward radicalization."
But, the Danish paper concludes, "the greatest woe the Middle East will have to handle is Syria. The Damascus government," it argues, "still refuses to accept Israel as a geopolitical entity. It will certainly attempt to use Lebanese tensions and instability
for its own purposes and to try to keep Lebanon as a hostage to the fragile [Mid-East] peace process."
DERNIERES NOUVELLES D'ALSACE: Barak has lost control of a calendar
Two French newspapers see Israel's withdrawal as no less than a catastrophe. Under the heading "A Catastrophic Departure," an editorial in the influential provincial daily Dernieres nouvelles d'Alsace says: "Israel has just been the victim of one of those speeding-ups of history that overwhelm the most elaborately careful plans."
The paper adds: "Certainly, Ehud Barak had promised to withdraw from Lebanon. But he intended to do so in good order, on the basis of an agreement with Syria that would have guaranteed the security of those living in northern Israel. One year after his election as premier, Barak has lost control of a calendar that would have allowed him to demonstrate his desire for peace. From now on, the Hizbollah militants will be seen as heroes and liberators in the eyes of much of the Arab world."
LIBERATION: The effects of this badly calculated maneuver are already disastrous
The French national daily Liberation places much of the blame for the chaos in Lebanon on Barak himself. The paper writes: "In giving the order to his troops to evacuate the security zone [Israel] created in 1978, [Barak] certainly created a surprise -- the retreat had been set for July 7. But above all, [his order] speeded up the demobilization of the South Lebanese Army, already weakened by desertions. In a few hours," the editorial says, "we witnessed the headlong flight of the Lebanese militia."
The editorial continues: "The effects of this badly calculated maneuver by Israel's prime minister are already disastrous. He had hoped to catch Syria off balance, but he is now faced with a psychological and political victory by his worst enemy -- the Hizbollah, which Syria -- for the moment at least -- has apparently decided to allow to do as it pleases. The paper adds: "Barak had hoped to satisfy Israeli public opinion [a majority of which favored withdrawal from Lebanon] by getting out of the Lebanese quagmire. But the operation has ended in a humiliating debacle." Barak, it concludes, "is undoubtedly a very good general, but he now appears to be a political mediocrity."
DAILY TELEGRAPH: The prime minister's star has waned
In the same vein, Britain's Daily Telegraph titles its editorial today, "Barak's Blunder." The paper writes: "The reason for the Israeli pull-out was that the public had no more stomach for a war of attrition in territory over which they felt they had no claim. Yet," it goes on, "when Barak promised to withdraw by July, he was hoping that by then a peace agreement would have been signed with Syria. His pledge, made without any reciprocal gesture from Damascus, was understandable in domestic political terms but offered a hostage to fortune on the military front. [As a result,] Israel is about to be deprived of a buffer zone and the vacuum is more likely to be filled by Hizbollah fighters than the Lebanese army or an expanded [UN presence]."
"It may be," the paper continues, "that Syria, deprived of foreign occupation as an excuse for giving Hizbollah rein, will now be more cautious; also, that Hizbollah members will be happy to abandon the armed struggle for Lebanese domestic politics.
"Yet," it argues, "these considerations pale into insignificance beside the psychological blow which Israel's premature exit is inflicting. The most powerful country in the Middle East has been humiliated by a bunch of guerrillas. Rejectionist forces throughout the region will conclude that Israel has lost its pioneering vigor, that it no longer has the will to defend its interests and stand by its proxy allies."
The Daily Telegraph concludes: "Mr. Barak, a war hero, set out boldly to complete unfinished business by reaching peace agreements with the Syrians and Palestinians. A year into his prime ministership, he has made no headway with the first and little with the second. The only deadline met is withdrawal from Lebanon, and that, unsupported by progress elsewhere, has become a symbol for weakness. How quickly," it sums up, "the prime minister's star has waned!"
IRISH TIMES: It is a highly unpropitious and uncertain time to withdraw
The Irish Times also sees "the disorderly retreat of the Israeli occupation troops in southern Lebanon and the chaotic disintegration of its proxy force, the South Lebanese Army, [as] dangerous developments." The paper's editorial says: "Mr. Barak had hoped to calibrate the withdrawal with the wider Middle East peace process, but that has proved an elusive objective. There is no peace deal in sight with Syria, Israel's antagonist on the Golan Heights. The last few days have seen a grave deterioration in Gaza and the West Bank, leading to the suspension of the peace talks. And Mr. Barak's coalition government may be close to collapse." It concludes: "It is thus a highly unpropitious and uncertain time to withdraw."
(Anthony Georgieff in Copenhagen contributed to this report.)