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Netanyahu in Dilemma Over Lebanon

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With elections ahead of them and a graveyard of failed Lebanon policies behind them, senior Israeli officials must tread carefully as they strike back at Hezbollah guerrillas waging a war of attrition against the Jewish state.

Military and political constraints are so far dictating a cautious response to an upsurge in Hezbollah ambushes that killed seven Israelis in less than a week, including the Israeli army’s highest-ranking commander in southern Lebanon.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his senior Cabinet ministers and military aides announced Sunday night an “air, land and sea” campaign to deliver harsh retaliation to the Syrian-backed Islamic forces. However, the retaliation, while fierce and swift, also has been limited in scope.

The dilemma facing Netanyahu has left the government without clear options.

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Israel’s occupation of a 9-mile-deep strip of southern Lebanon is supposed to protect civilians in adjacent northern Israel from Hezbollah attacks.

For more than 20 years, no government has been able to extricate itself from southern Lebanon; many have tried, and the results have at times been disastrous. And with a close election for prime minister and parliament scheduled for May 17, the time does not seem ripe for courageous--and politically risky--initiatives.

Netanyahu often acts in a way that is not wholly predictable. But a range of analysts and officials said Monday that it was unlikely he would launch an all-out military offensive as he fights for reelection, in part because of chances that such an action could backfire.

Former Prime Minister Shimon Peres of the Labor Party launched “Operation Grapes of Wrath” in southern Lebanon just weeks before the 1996 election. Fighting ended in the calamitous shelling of a U.N. base, killing scores of civilian Lebanese refugees. And Peres narrowly lost the election after Israeli Arabs and some of Labor’s traditional leftist supporters abandoned him in disgust.

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Lebanon was a sticky trap that sucked Peres in. Netanyahu undoubtedly keeps that experience in mind. Although his political constituency is far more hawkish than Peres’ and would not reject a show of military might per se, a high body count would be equally unsettling for Netanyahu voters.

“I don’t see the military undertaking a major ground invasion, simply because it hasn’t worked the four or five times [it’s been tried] over the last 20 years,” said Gerald Steinberg, a military specialist from Bar Ilan University in Tel Aviv. Status quo in southern Lebanon “is the least bad of all the options, which is why we are back there again and why we are likely to stay there.”

Instead of a large-scale offensive, Netanyahu and others indicated that the response will be measured, with Israeli attacks escalating in tandem with Hezbollah attacks. The Israelis also are expected to widen their choice of targets. If the guerrillas unleash rocket attacks on civilian settlements in northern Israel, all bets are off.

“Israel will continue the battle against Hezbollah because they continue the battle against us,” Netanyahu said as he paid a condolence call on the family of a soldier who was killed Sunday.

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Israel has been losing 20 to 30 soldiers a year in southern Lebanon, a toll that is seen as a painful but “acceptable” price for the safety of Israeli citizens in northern Israel.

Were the death toll to soar, however, government officials said they would be forced to rethink the options. Hit harder? Withdraw and take chances? As it is, a senior official said, the current toll is high enough to erode Israeli public morale while low enough to keep Israeli military response limited.

Israel’s 21-year entanglement in southern Lebanon is often compared to America’s Vietnam trauma, where a military superpower could not defeat a smaller insurgent force.

And like the American experience, there is growing clamor among Israelis to withdraw.

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Even hawkish Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon, who directed the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, now advocates a gradual pullout, accompanied by a threat to bomb Lebanon if Hezbollah attacks northern Israeli communities.

There is debate within the Israeli government and defense establishment over the nature of the threat posed to northern Israelis in the event of a pullout. Hard-liners are convinced Hezbollah would not stop at the border and would escalate attacks on civilians.

Others believe that if Israel pulls back, a peace treaty with Syria, the real power in Lebanon, will be possible. Syria seeks the return of the Golan Heights, which Israel captured in the 1967 war. One scenario is for Israel to leave southern Lebanon, and then hold Syria accountable for any attacks, with retaliation aimed at Syrian targets.


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