Cabinet OKs Barak Plan for Lebanon Withdrawal


The Israeli government voted unanimously Sunday to back Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s plan to pull Israeli troops out of southern Lebanon by July, a withdrawal that would end Israel’s long, costly occupation of its northern neighbor.

A statement by Barak’s Cabinet said the government will try to ensure that such a withdrawal is carried out within “the framework of an agreement” with Syria, the main power broker in Lebanon. But it left open the possibility that the pullback of Israeli troops across the border could take place even without a peace deal.

Barak has pledged repeatedly to bring Israeli soldiers home from Lebanon by July, ending an occupation he has described as a “tragedy” in which Israeli troops and Lebanese civilians alike have suffered numerous casualties. Israel occupied the 9-mile-deep border strip nearly two decades ago in an effort to protect its northern communities from cross-border attacks by Palestinian and Lebanese guerrillas.


“After 18 years of tragedy in southern Lebanon, the Israeli government has decided that by July 2000, we will bring our boys back home, back to the international border, and end the bleeding in Lebanon,” Barak said on Israeli television news after the vote. “A new chapter begins.”

The Israeli leader has often said he would prefer to carry out such a withdrawal in the context of an agreement with Syria, but Sunday’s decision seemed intended to send a clear message to Syrian President Hafez Assad: that Israel is determined to withdraw from Lebanon with or without an accord and that time is running out for Syria to use its influence in Lebanon as a bargaining chip in negotiating a comprehensive peace deal.

U.S.-brokered negotiations between Israel and Syria aimed at reaching such a deal resumed in December after a four-year hiatus but quickly bogged down in disagreement over Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights. Israel captured the strategic plateau from Syria in the 1967 Middle East War, and Syria has demanded its return as part of any agreement. Amid a flurry of rumors--and denials--in recent days that the talks are about to begin again and lead to a speedy accord, Barak told the Cabinet on Sunday that he did not know when they might resume.

But according to Israeli state radio, he also told his ministers that if the two sides do not return to the bargaining table and hammer out an accord in relatively short order, it will be difficult to reach an agreement for at least 18 months. Barak did not state his reasons, but they are said to include a number of factors, including Assad’s reportedly failing health and President Clinton’s dwindling term in office. The U.S. president has pushed hard for permanent agreements on both the Palestinian and Syrian peace tracks, but to little avail thus far.

A Cabinet statement said that if no agreement is reached, the Cabinet will reconvene to discuss how to implement its decision.

In Beirut, Lebanese Prime Minister Salim Hoss welcomed the Cabinet move but said he would prefer a withdrawal in the context of an agreement.


“We do not trust Israel’s intentions if it happens without a deal,” he told reporters.

In Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, where Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is on a visit, her spokesman urged Israel and Syria to resume discussions about southern Lebanon prior to Israel’s deadline for withdrawal.

“Israel has made it clear for some time that it is committed to withdrawing its forces from south Lebanon by the middle of the year,” State Department spokesman Philip T. Reeker said. “The Cabinet vote [Sunday] reaffirms that commitment, also making clear that Israel would prefer to withdraw as part of a negotiated settlement with Lebanon and Syria.

“We believe that the needs of all the parties are best addressed through negotiations,” he said. “That’s why we are doing everything we can to get them restarted and work toward comprehensive peace.”

There was no immediate reaction from Syria, but Foreign Minister Farouk Shareh, who led the recent negotiations with Israel, warned last week of the potential for new violence in the region in the event of a unilateral Israeli pullout. In an interview with the London-based pan-Arab newspaper Al Hayat, Shareh said that such a withdrawal could not be used to pressure Syria and that Israeli politicians who argued for it were “urging the Israelis to commit suicide.”

Barak made an Israeli pullout from Lebanon by July a key promise last year during his election campaign against the incumbent prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. This year, though, with spiraling violence in Lebanon, including the death of seven more Israeli soldiers in attacks by Hezbollah guerrillas and retaliatory Israeli air raids on Lebanese power plants, Barak has come under mounting public pressure to make good on that pledge, one way or another.

But there are risks for all sides if Israel withdraws unilaterally, without agreements with Syria and, secondarily, with Lebanon itself.


Syria, which hopes to regain the Golan Heights in a peace deal, would lose one of its few negotiating tools in relation to Israel: the ability to pressure the Jewish state through attacks on its soldiers in southern Lebanon by the Hezbollah guerrillas.

Israel, in withdrawing to the international border without any agreement, would run the risk that Hezbollah would follow it across the boundary, attacking towns and villages in the Galilee and prompting possibly heavy Israeli reprisals and subsequent international criticism.

And Lebanon, while regaining control of its territory, would face the fact that the newly recovered area could descend into a period of even greater violence as Israel’s enemies and its militia allies battled for control.


Times staff writers John Daniszewski in Cairo and Norman Kempster in Prague contributed to this report.


Zone of Conflict

Following are key facts and a chronology of Israel’s military involvement in Lebanon.


OCCUPATION ZONE: Israel has controlled parts of southern Lebanon with the help of a militia proxy since its 1978 invasion. The current occupation zone, nine miles deep, was carved out in 1985 after Israel pulled back from a line farther north, held since a 1982 invasion that reached Beirut.


FATALITIES: According to Israeli army figures, more than 900 Israeli soldiers have been killed in Lebanon since 1978. About 250 soldiers have been killed, mostly by Muslim guerrillas, since the present occupation zone was established. Since the beginning of the year, seven Israeli soldiers have been killed by Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas, attacks that have led to mounting pressure in Israel on the government to bring the troops home.


Israel’s proxy, the South Lebanon Army, or SLA, says more than 300 of its militiamen have been killed in the zone since 1982.

Thousands of civilians have also died in the south Lebanon conflict, with the greatest numbers during Israel’s 1978 and 1982 invasions. More than 200 people, mostly civilians, were also killed in Israel’s 1996 “Grapes of Wrath” operation.


TROOPS: About 1,000 Israeli soldiers patrol the zone with an estimated 2,000 SLA militiamen.