February 17, 2000
Israel's leaders are losing whatever faith they may have had in Hafez Assad. They are no longer convinced that the Syrian president has made a strategic choice for peace.
As a result, more than half Ehud Barak's cabinet is pressing for an early, unilateral withdrawal of Israeli troops from Southern Lebanon -- and the prime minister does not write off that option. The skeptics include some of the most dedicated of peaceniks.
Justice Minister Yossi Beilin, one of the architects of the 1993 Oslo breakthrough with the Palestinians, despaired this week: "I don't understand why the Syrians missed the boat with Rabin, Peres and Netanyahu. I don't understand why they sent Foreign Minister Shara to shake hands with Barak. And I don't understand why they stopped the negotiations. They have here a government that is ready to pay the price for peace. I hope they're not going to miss the boat again."
Another Oslo veteran, Uri Savir, urged: "We have to stop courting the Syrians." Savir, now a Center Party legislator, headed the Wye Plantation negotiations with Syria under the 1992-1996 Labor administration.
Although he is not yet ready to give up, Barak is beginning to share their doubts. The Syrian negotiations are doubly critical for the prime minister because Damascus holds the key to stability in Lebanon. And the Lebanese cannot sign a deal without Syria's blessing.
Barak promised his voters to "bring the boys home" by July, one year after he took office. He is standing by that timetable. He would still prefer to pull back in agreement with Syria. But he made it clear this week that he would not keep Israeli soldiers across the border indefinitely as Syrian bargaining chips.
"If it turns out, in the coming weeks," he conceded, "that there is no one to make an agreement with, we will stop the Lebanese tragedy in the best possible way by July." Other ministers are suggesting that the decision to leave might be taken as early as March or April. The general staff is already drawing up plans for defending Israel's front-line communities from south of the border.
An escalating casualty toll -- at least seven Israeli soldiers have died in the past three weeks -- is sapping the will to fight of the conscripts and the stoicism of their families. If they are going to withdraw by July, they don't see why they should risk death for the sanctity of a timetable.
Aryeh Itah, a reserve colonel whose son was killed by a Hezbollah missile last Friday, made an impassioned television appeal to Barak: "Take the boys out of Lebanon. Please do it quickly so that my son, Tzahi, will be the last sacrifice."
Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg told worried mothers of soldiers serving in Lebanon: "We are sitting ducks there. We should pull out as soon as possible. If it is right to pull out in July, why is it not right do so now?"
Most Israeli commentators acknowledge that Israel is losing the war of attrition with the Hezbollah guerrillas. But what would be celebrated in the Arab world as a humiliating retreat goes against the grain for Barak, who was elected to deliver both peace and security. He still aspires to end the Israeli-Arab conflict once and for all. And his strongest card with Israeli voters is his record as the Jewish state's most decorated war hero.
"There would be far fewer casualties, in the long run, if Lebanon were evacuated as part of a comprehensive peace agreement with Syria," he argued. "If we want to reach an agreement, we cannot pull out under pressure. We are fighting in Lebanon so as to exhaust the chances of a settlement. A nation also needs to know how to communicate its steadfastness in times of pain."
But even if the Clinton administration manages to cajole Israel and Syria back to the negotiating table, Barak's chances of selling a peace treaty, which would have to include returning the Golan Heights to Damascus, are being eroded by Assad's belligerence. Barak has pledged to submit any agreement to a referendum.
A late January poll by Tel-Aviv University's Steinmetz Center for Peace Research found 51 percent of Israelis saying they would vote against if a referendum were held today. Only 25 percent said they would vote in favor. The rest were waiting to see the color of Assad's money.
Israelis at all levels are convinced that Syria is fostering the Hezbollah offensive. Syria, warned Deputy Defense Minster Ephraim Sneh, could not talk and shoot simultaneously. "The whole logistics of Hezbollah comes through Syria," he explained, "the supply of arms, the supply of everything. Also nothing can be done in Lebanon without Syrian approval."
At the same time, Israelis have been dismayed by an editorial in the official Syrian newspaper, Tishreen, which contended that the Holocaust was a Zionist myth and that Israel had done much worse things to the Palestinians. "Frankly, the Syrians can go and stuff themselves. I've had it with them," columnist Hirsh Goodman wrote in the Jerusalem Report magazine.
"The Syrians," complained Yaron Ezrahi, a Hebrew University political scientist, "are doing nothing to facilitate the political support system necessary for Barak to give back the Golan. Israelis will not give up the heights for an antagonistic peace. Syria cannot maintain the posture of an enemy and negotiate with Israel."
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