February 10, 2000
A deadly escalation of Hezbollah's guerrilla campaign and Israeli retaliation is threatening to sabotage the Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations -- not least because Israeli analysts suspect that President Hafez Assad is deliberately stoking the furnace in Southern Lebanon in order to strengthen his bargaining hand on the Golan Heights.
Prime Minister Ehud Barak sent a stern warning to the Syrians via Washington after an Israeli combat medic, 20-year-old Staff Sergeant Yedidya Gefen, was killed on Sunday in a fierce mortar barrage launched by the Iranian-backed Shi'ite militia. Israel pinned the blame squarely on Damascus, adding: "If the Syrians do not exert the whole of their weight and influence on restraining Hezbollah, they will be forced to pay a heavy price."
In a calculated response, Israeli warplanes rocketed a guerrilla command center and power stations deep inside Lebanon early on Tuesday morning, plunging the cities of Beirut, Baalbek, Tyre and Sidon into darkness. The message was directed as much at the Syrian and Lebanese governments as at Hezbollah: Israel is not prepared to be bombed to the conference table. Damascus will not be allowed to make peace and wage war at the same time.
The army ordered residents of Israeli border towns and villages into their shelters in anticipation of a Hezbollah counter-strike. Staff Sergeant Gefen was the fifth Israeli soldier to die across the Lebanese border in 10 days after months of relative calm. Tuesday a sixth Israeli soldier was killed. The Israeli public is fast losing patience. So is the army, though the generals will still do as the politicians tell them.
Popular anger was fanned on Sunday night, when local television stations aired anguished, Vietnam-type footage of the wounded bleeding on the battlefield. This was a drastic change from the normally restrained Israeli coverage.
"The Lebanese valley of death penetrated Mr. Israel's living room after 18 years of evasion," Hemi Shalev commented in the tabloid Ma'ariv. "He innocently turned on his TV at prime time and was greeted by the face of combat straight from hell."
Barak, who heard the news while he was meeting King Abdullah in Jordan, responded that Hezbollah would "pay a heavy price for attacks -- every attack -- on Israeli soldiers." He had to find a way to hit back hard, but without jeopardizing the Syrian peace talks, which he still regards as the best route out of Lebanon.
His problem is that Assad is exploiting these diplomatic constraints. Jumbo jet loads of arms from Iran to Hezbollah via Damascus airport have been stepped up in recent weeks. Syria can no longer claim that it is holding Hezbollah in check.
"The accelerated pace of arms shipments would be impossible without Damascus's permission and blessing," Ze'ev Schiff, Israel's most authoritative military commentator, wrote in the liberal Ha'aretz. "The assumption is that Syria wants Hezbollah to be able to fight for several weeks rather than a few days, as happened in the past."
The political and psychological balance here is tilting from peacemaking to belligerence. The Likud opposition urged Barak to halt negotiations with Syria "so long as its minions kill Israeli soldiers."
Even a supreme dove like Justice Minister Yossi Beilin, an architect of the 1993 Oslo breakthrough with the Palestinians, insisted that Israel's first duty was to the security of its own citizens and those who were putting their lives on the line to shield them. Syria could not impose a veto on Israeli action in Lebanon, he said. No one could expect immunity, if they attacked Israeli troops and their allies of the South Lebanese Army. The decision to bomb Lebanon was taken unanimously by Barak's inner security cabinet.
The "Four Mothers" anti-war campaigners were not alone in demanding an immediate withdrawal from the narrow security belt that stretches from the Mediterranean in the west to the Hermon foothills in the east. Some ministers, from Meretz's Ran Cohen on the left to Natan Sharansky on the right, joined the call for a unilateral pullback.
Labor's Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, a former special forces general who once commanded Israeli operations across the Lebanese border, said: "Everything must be done to leave with an agreement, but if there is no chance of an agreement, we must leave Lebanon even before the date promised by the prime minister."
Barak himself is hinting that he might order a withdrawal before the July deadline he promised the voters in last year's election. The general staff has been working for weeks on a strategy that would defend front-line communities from the Galilee side of the border.
The onus is now on Assad to convince Israel anew that he has made a strategic choice for peace. If he fails, the peace process will wither and die.