April 6, 2000
Israeli-Syrian tensions escalate, but Barak downplays new threats
Ever since the Cabinet approved the withdrawal a month ago, there has been speculation that Hezbollah gunmen would attack communities in northern Israel.
This week there was a new threat, issued by Lebanon's defense minister, that Syria would send its army into southern Lebanon if Israel withdraws from the area.
On Monday, Prime Minister Ehud Barak discounted the threat from Hezbollah, saying "Israel is the strongest country in the region, and I don't think that any party would dare to come into a confrontation with us."
With the same aura of confidence, he maintained that it would not be necessary to augment the force of U.N. peacekeepers currently serving as a buffer along the Israeli-Lebanese border.
His comments came during a news conference with visiting U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen, who said the United States would not deploy troops in southern Lebanon as part of an international peacekeeping force.
Barak has sought international backing for the planned withdrawal by saying it would take place under the terms of U.N. Security Council Resolution 425, which called in 1978 for the pullback.
He maintains that the withdrawal would be viewed favorably by the international community since it would contribute to world order.
Although successive Israeli governments have ignored the resolution, Barak contends that honoring it would force the international community to guarantee the safety of Israel's northern border.
If there are any cross-border attacks, he also argues, the international community would have to refrain from criticizing any Israeli retaliation.
A day before meeting with Cohen, Barak dismissed the threat made by Lebanon's defense minister.
He told his Cabinet that the threat of Syrian troops is not "realistic." Barak also said he is pessimistic that Israeli-Syrian negotiations would resume soon.
During Sunday's weekly Cabinet meeting, Barak noted that the Lebanese defense minister's remarks reflected the growing concern in Syria and Lebanon over the implications of an Israeli troop withdrawal.
When the Cabinet approved the withdrawal last month, Barak's team of ministers said it would take place by July with or without an accompanying agreement with Syria and Lebanon.
After President Clinton and Syrian President Hafez Assad failed last week during a summit in Geneva to find a formula for resuming Israeli-Syrian negotiations, it now appears that such a pullback would be unilateral.
Both Syria and Lebanon oppose a unilateral Israeli withdrawal.
Syria has long used Hezbollah gunmen in southern Lebanon as a proxy, giving them the green light to step up attacks on Israeli troops in order to force Israeli concessions -- particularly regarding the Golan Heights, whose return Syria wants as part of any peace deal.
A unilateral withdrawal of Israeli troops from Lebanon would deprive Assad of this leverage.
After the Cabinet meeting, several ministers lashed out at the possibility that Syria would dispatch troops to the Israeli-Lebanese border.
The move would be "insufferable," said Communications Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer. "It would open a new front by Syria in addition to the front in the Golan."
The issue surfaced after Lebanon's defense minister, Ghazi Zaiter, suggested Saturday that Beirut might ask Damascus to deploy the troops to "put Tel Aviv within range of Syrian rockets."
His comments were part of the exchange of heated rhetoric that has erupted since the failure of the Clinton-Assad summit.
Zaiter said his remarks represented his own personal opinion and did not reflect official Lebanese policy.
Indeed, Lebanese officials later attempted to downplay his comments, saying they were only intended to show that Lebanon would have several options to choose from in the wake of an Israeli withdrawal.
Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa, during a visit Sunday to Beirut, dismissed Zaiter's remarks.
"We do not expect war and we do not want war,'' said Sharaa, who met with Barak in December and January for a series of negotiations that ended in stalemate.
Meanwhile, Israeli political commentators said it is unlikely that Syria would deploy troops to the border because this would be seen as a clear sign of aggression.
Some Cabinet ministers were quoted as saying that Tel Aviv is already within range of missiles located within Syria.