By Leslie Susser
JERUSALEM, July 31 (JTA) — International efforts to end Israel-Hezbollah fighting moved into high gear after the tragic killing of civilians in Kana, but there remain fundamental differences between Israel and Lebanon over what needs to be done next.
The Lebanese want an immediate cease-fire, and only then to start talking about new arrangements on the ground and a prisoner exchange. Israel wants all the elements of a long-term agreement sewn up first, and only then to declare a cease-fire.
The United States tends to side with Israel; most of the international community sides with Lebanon. The outcome of this argument will be crucial in determining what kind of arrangements are eventually put in place.
The Lebanese hold that stopping the bloodshed is the most urgent concern. Israel counters that a cease-fire without an overall agreement simply would enable Hezbollah to rebuild its capacity to fire rockets while talks on the agreement stretch out, possibly for months.
The Israelis want more time for military operations they hope will weaken Hezbollah enough to facilitate the implementation of a deal in which the terrorist organization is disarmed.
Israel’s main goal is to secure future arrangements on the ground that would eliminate Hezbollah’s rocket threat to Israel. To achieve this, some Israeli strategists are ready for a far-reaching agreement that entails the return of Shebaa Farms, a sliver of Syrian land that Israel has occupied since the 1967 Six-Day War and to which Lebanon has concocted a claim that the international community rejects. Others go further and urge the inclusion of Syria in a comprehensive agreement to stabilize the situation in the North.
Following are three main approaches to resolving the crisis:
• Reaffirmation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559 of September 2004, and the deployment of an international force to facilitate its implementation.
The key provisions of 1559 are paragraphs 3 and 4, which call for “the disbanding and disarmament of all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias” — such as Hezbollah — and “the extension of the control of the government of Lebanon over all Lebanese territory.” That would include deploying the Lebanese army along the border with Israel, an area that the Lebanese government until now has left in Hezbollah’s hands.
Lebanese officials say first there must be a cease-fire and then an exchange of prisoners, after which it would consider allowing a multinational force to enter Lebanon to help the army move south to the border with Israel. The Lebanese also are ambivalent about the multinational force disarming Hezbollah — after indicating an initial readiness, they now say Hezbollah must remain intact as a bulwark against Israeli “aggression.”
Israel says the multinational force’s composition and mandate must be agreed upon first. It should have at least 10,000 well-trained troops and be empowered to disarm Hezbollah, prevent weapons smuggling from Syria, help the Lebanese army assert its authority in the South and be strong enough to use force if necessary.
Israel rejects Lebanon’s sequential approach and argues that the cease-fire, prisoner exchange and international force deployment must occur almost simultaneously. Israel argues that a time lapse between a cease-fire and the entry of international forces would enable Hezbollah militiamen to creep back into the South, in defiance of the international force’s mandate.
The United States, which is playing a major role in the formulation of the peace package, sees three elements: a cease-fire, a stabilizing force and a long-term, “sustainable” settlement. But like Israel, it argues that imposing a cease-fire before the whole package is agreed would be self-defeating.
As part of the package, Israel also is calling for the establishment of a second, non-military international force to help rebuild Lebanon. The idea is to prevent Iran, the country behind Hezbollah, from gaining a firmer foothold in Lebanon by providing the tools and funds for reconstruction.
But what happens if Hezbollah refuses to go along with the plan: Will the international force be ready to confront well-armed militiamen? That’s why Israel says more time is necessary to wear down Hezbollah before a cease-fire is declared.
• Shebaa Farms: Paragraph 2 of Resolution 1559 calls on “all remaining foreign forces to withdraw from Lebanon.” At the time that was aimed at Syria, but now the Lebanese say it also means Israeli withdrawal from the Shebaa Farms area.
The Shebaa Farms are eight isolated groups of huts used by shepherds in winter, which have no strategic value to Israel or Lebanon. After Israel’s withdrawal to the international border in 2000, Lebanon suddenly raised a claim to the Shebaa Farms. The United Nations, which checked the data, found Lebanon’s claim baseless and said the issue must be settled between Israel and Syria.
Now, however, Syria may be prepared to waive its rights to the land, and some Israeli strategists say that handing them to Lebanon would put an end to all territorial claims on Israel from both the Lebanese government and Hezbollah.
The same predictions were made when Israel withdrew to the international border in 2000, but Hezbollah merely found new pretexts for violence. Still, some say that including Shebaa in any package might make Hezbollah more amenable to accepting the other provisions of Resolution 1559.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert apparently is ready to put the Shebaa Farms on the table, but critics say giving Shebaa to Lebanon would constitute a prize for terrorism, and would undermine one of the main goals of Israel’s military action: restoring Israel’s deterrent capacity.
• Syria: A growing number of Israeli strategists argue that the only way to stabilize the situation in the North is to bring Syria into a more comprehensive agreement. Of all the potential players, only Damascus has the clout to keep Hezbollah quiet, strategists say. From a regional perspective, they argue that detaching Syria from the Iranian axis would enable the formation of a pro-Western, mainly Sunni front against an increasingly isolated Shi’ite Iran.
Why would Syria want to come in? Strategists say the Alawite regime in Damascus fears two things: fundamentalists and Israel. Coming over to the Western side and stabilizing Israel’s northern border would help them on both counts.
But Israel may have to pay a high price for Syria’s cooperation — willingness to begin negotiations on the return of the strategic Golan Heights captured from Syria in 1967.
The importance of Syria’s role in a post-war settlement has not been lost on Defense Minister Amir Peretz. A blueprint drawn up by Peretz’s staff for an approach to Syria after the war has been distributed among the seven-member war Cabinet.
But will the Olmert government be prepared to put the Golan Heights on the negotiating table in order to make strategic gains in Lebanon, and vis-a-vis Iran? That remains to be seen.