Promise Leads Barak Into a Trap

Yossi Melman is an Israeli author and journalist with the daily Ha'aretz specializing in intelligence and security affairs

Prime Minister Ehud Barak faced the full dimension of the dilemma that has haunted him since his first day in office when he recently visited the intensive-care unit at Rambam Hospital in Haifa. Barak called on several Israeli soldiers who were wounded in a rocket attack by Hezbollah guerrillas in southern Lebanon. Three other Israeli soldiers were killed in the attack, and the region seems on the verge of another escalation in the fighting between the Islamic fundamentalist group and Israel’s military force. While talking to the wounded soldiers, Barak was challenged by two mothers: “We voted for you,” they said, “because you promised to bring our sons home from the war zone in Lebanon.”

Indeed, Barak and his Labor Party promised to sign a peace treaty with Syria and evacuate Israeli troops from southern Lebanon as part of the deal. Israel’s presence in Lebanon began in 1982, when Israeli soldiers invaded to “mop up” bases of Palestinian fighters whose hit-and-run operations were destabilizing Israeli life along the northern border. The invasion also aimed to establish a “security zone” to protect Israeli communities in the upper Galilee region.

Before elections eight months ago, and on several occasions since then, Barak has not only repeated his promises but also entrapped himself with a commitment to bring the Israeli boys home by July 2000. Barak hoped the Israeli pullout would be part of a larger deal with Syria, which controls Lebanon. In 1976, Syrian President Hafez Assad ordered his troops into Lebanon to “save” the country from a civil war between its Christian and Muslim communities. Since then, nearly 100,000 Syrian troops have been deployed on Lebanese soil, and 1 million Syrian workers make their living there. The elected government in Beirut is, to a certain degree, a puppet regime, operating according to the wishes and orders of Damascus.

To enhance his political agenda, Barak had, with the help of the U.S. administration, launched peace talks, now suspended, with Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Shareh. Barak reluctantly reiterated the pledge made by the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, in 1995, that Israel would hand back the Golan Heights that it captured in the June 1967 war. In return for the territory, Syria would sign a peace treaty and agree to security arrangements guaranteeing Israel’s security. As Rabin did, Barak demands that Syria establish full diplomatic and trade relations with Israel, including open borders; demilitarize the Golan Heights; and allow the presence there of early warning stations manned by international and Israeli inspectors. In addition, Barak wants Syria to neutralize Hezbollah and maintain peace and stability on the Lebanese front.

But Israel’s territorial concessions are not enough for Syria. Its leadership insists that the Israeli withdrawal from the Golan include a 60-square-kilometer area along the eastern banks of the Sea of Galilee. This would give Syria access to one of the treasures of the Middle East: water. The demand, however, is incompatible with the internationally recognized borders between the two countries (agreed on in 1923 by the French and British, who ruled the region) and is completely unacceptable to Israel’s public and Barak’s Cabinet.


U.S. pressure might force the Israeli-Syrian talks to resume, but an agreement may not be achievable. Barak and his fragile left-of-center coalition, threatened by social and religious discord, will find themselves facing an almost impossible mission. To keep his election promise, the Israeli prime minister will have to settle for a unilateral withdrawal of his troops from Lebanon without an overall agreement with Syria. Such a step is highly risky. Many Israeli experts, including heads of the army and the intelligence community, contend that Hezbollah will not settle for an Israeli pullout and will continue to pursue a policy of confrontation by expanding its war into Israel.

Hezbollah is ideologically and religiously motivated to fight Israel. Furthermore, the fundamentalist movement is backed by Iran, which opposes the peace process in the Middle East. Israeli military chiefs believe that only Syria can restrain Hezbollah. But why should Syria do it? Why should Syria help to promote Israeli interests? On the contrary, Syria might be tempted to use Hezbollah as a “whip” against Israel.

Since the end of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Assad has been reluctant to risk his socially, economically and militarily weak regime in a direct confrontation with Israel. That’s one reason why he has rigorously preserved the peace along the Syrian-Israeli border. But occasionally, when it suits his purposes, Assad unleashes Hezbollah. Israeli experts believe that the renewed clashes between Hezbollah and Israeli soldiers in southern Lebanon, which in the last two weeks have resulted in seven Israeli soldiers killed and one senior officer of the Israel-backed South Lebanese militia assassinated, are a signal from Damascus reminding Israel of the pivotal role Syria plays in war and peace.

The consequence is that Israeli-Syrian-Lebanese relations are reaching a crossroad. If an overall agreement is not achieved soon, Barak’s promise to withdraw from Lebanon will be in jeopardy. Israel’s mothers and a majority of the Israeli public want the army to withdraw now, but the military opposes it. Israel may resort to harsher retaliation than the bombing it conducted last week, targeting bridges, power stations and roads in Lebanon. The Israeli chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz, advocates such an approach. If adopted by Barak, it would mean escalating tension among Israel, Lebanon, Syria and Iran, causing a serious setback to already crippled peace negotiations.