Israeli leaders are reviewing their plans for withdrawal of Israeli troops from southern Lebanon and, in view of the heightening violence there, may decide to speed the pullout.
Although military and political constraints affect Israel's ability to withdraw more quickly than now planned, none are so severe that the army could not be back home long before Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin's mid-September target date.
Knowledgeable foreign and Israeli sources stress that the review so far is informal and suggest that even if the withdrawal plan is changed, it may not be announced. However, there is no question that this week's clashes in southern Lebanon have underlined the risks of prolonging the army's stay there any longer than necessary.
"There is a national decision in Israel by the government and by the Knesset (Parliament) to get ourselves back as soon as possible to the international boundary," said Abba Eban, chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in an Israel radio interview this week. "I believe there is a movement to examine every possibility of making that as expeditious as possible."
At least 14 Israeli soldiers and 37 Lebanese have been killed and scores wounded this week in a tit-for-tat sequence of suicide bombings, Israeli search-and-destroy raids on civilian villages, and retaliatory attacks. The latest casualties were announced Thursday, when Israel said its troops had killed three Lebanese guerrillas in a fight east of Tyre the night before.
Israeli lawmakers have debated half a dozen motions calling for an immediate withdrawal. And the Peace Now movement has scheduled a public demonstration Saturday night in Tel Aviv to put pressure on the government for a faster pullout.
One foreign source, who spoke on condition that he not be further identified, said there are elements of a classic Greek tragedy in the escalating violence, with each side acting out its destiny.
Israel's "iron fist" policy in southern Lebanon results from a national security doctrine, refined over at least a generation, which holds that the continued existence of the country depends on the credibility of its military threat, this source explained. For the Shia Muslims at the forefront of the Lebanese resistance, meanwhile, dying for the cause is a ticket to paradise.
Israeli leaders are reluctant to take any public decision that might make it appear that they are shrinking before what they admit is an unprecedented guerrilla campaign against the army.
"If the Shia terrorists are given the feeling that they are dictating the pace of the (Israel Defense Force's) withdrawal, they will consider this a victory over the IDF," the independent newspaper Maariv said the other day in an editorial. "And if there is anything more dangerous than a nationalist religious zealot who believes that his place in heaven is assured, it is a zealot who begins to believe that his attacks constitute a defeat for the IDF."
Thus, Prime Minister Shimon Peres vowed earlier this week, during a visit to victims of Sunday's suicide truck bomber who killed 12 Israeli soldiers and wounded 14, that: "We will leave not in panic, not in surrender. . . . The terrorists will not dictate our steps."
Peres and Rabin have insisted repeatedly that while the army will leave Lebanon as quickly as possible, the pace will be dictated--as the defense minister put it--"purely by military logistics." The Israeli withdrawal plan was approved in principle by the Cabinet on Jan. 14.
That plan calls for a three-phase withdrawal to the international border. The ministers set no deadline for the final withdrawal and reserved for themselves the prerogative of establishing the timing of each phase.
The first stage, involving the evacuation of the Sidon area, was completed Feb. 16. Eleven days ago, the Cabinet voted to begin Stage 2, in which the Israelis are to leave the Bekaa Valley, Mt. Barouk, and the area around Jezzine.
Unlike the first stage, when the Cabinet announced a month ahead of time the deadline for the Sidon pullout and the army distributed maps showing the redeployment line, the timing and details of Stage 2 have never been made public.
Defense sources have said that the goal is to pull back in the central and eastern sectors of the occupation zone within about 12 weeks, but it is always stressed that much depends on the weather. And the redeployment line is mentioned only in the vaguest terms.
Details of Stage 3 are even fuzzier. While January's Cabinet decision speaks of the IDF withdrawing to the international border, it also refers to maintenance of an undefined security zone north of the border, where the army would cooperate with the Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army militia to guard against terrorist threats to Israel's northern settlements.
However, senior Israeli officials have spoken about completing the pullback by fall and, on March 4, Rabin said in response to a question during a radio interview that he believes that the troops will be home by the Jewish New Year, Sept. 15.
The vagueness of Stages 2 and 3 gives the government and the army leeway to speed up the pullout without publicly saying so.
One option suggested twice this week by Rabin is that the army combine at least a portion of Stage 3 with the Stage 2 redeployment, evacuating the area around Tyre at the same time that the troops leave Jezzine, Mt. Barouk, and the Bekaa Valley. Shia Muslim resistance to the Israelis is particularly strong in the villages east of the ancient seaport, and the hope would be to cut down, at least, on the number of guerrilla attacks by such a move.
A spokesman for Rabin stressed that the defense minister has only mentioned such a possibility--not endorsed it. Militarily, the biggest constraint on an immediate Israeli withdrawal is the weather on Mt. Barouk, where the army has several hundred million dollars worth of electronic surveillance and tracking equipment that it cannot remove until the snow melts--usually in April.
Also, the IDF faces two divisions of the Syrian army in the Bekaa Valley, which constitutes a bigger potential threat than the guerrillas in the western sector of the occupation zone.
Military sources note that while it may be unlikely, it is possible that Syria could use the confusion inherent in such a withdrawal to launch a surprise attack. Another military constraint affecting the pace of the pullout is preparation of IDF positions along the border.
Military sources say the combination of new defenses and the costs of the pullback will total $240 million. The plan is to completely seal the border at a cost of about $125,000 a mile for fencing, advanced electronic equipment, patrol road repairs and other items.
The South Lebanon Army is being reorganized into separate ethnic groups. According to published reports here, 300 to 400 Israeli advisers will remain attached to the SLA. The militia, which now has more than 2,000 men, is expected to shrink, according to military sources.
The Israelis must also either free or relocate about 1,500 Lebanese prisoners that they now hold at the Ansar prison northeast of Tyre. Military sources say that if the prisoners are not exchanged for captured Israeli soldiers, they will be moved to a new prison within the security zone just north of the border.
Despite those military constraints, it is believed that once the army leaves Mt. Barouk, it could come the rest of the way home much more quickly than the three months or so originally envisioned. The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday quoted unnamed military sources as saying that a Stage 3 withdrawal could be accomplished "within days." Political constraints could make that difficult, however. Some ministers in the fragile national unity coalition clearly oppose a speedier withdrawal.