|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
3 - 9 December 1998
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
A good week for Hizbullah
"It was a good week", Hizbullah said after penetrating the zone Israel occupies in the south twice in as many days and killing four Israelis in bomb and mine attacks. Those two attacks brought the Israeli death toll over the past two weeks to seven.
But it was not a good week for Israel. The attacks forced Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to cut short his European tour for an urgent review of Israel's Lebanon policy. But the cabinet cannot agree on a strategy. The option of a unilateral withdrawal from the south does not appear to be on the table. "It was a very substantive discussion with interesting proposals, but a unilateral withdrawal was not one of them," Netanyahu said after the first round of top-level talks. "There will be no pull-out without security guarantees."
It was also a bad week for Lebanon. The country was plunged into political turmoil less than a week after President Emile Lahoud took the oath of office. Caretaker Prime Minister Rafik Al-Hariri has rejected an offer to head the next government because he claimed that "the parliamentary consultations that led to it breached the constitution."
"I am not a candidate for the post of prime minister," Hariri said on Monday. Eighty-three deputies out of the 128-seat parliament supported Hariri's re-appointment, while 31, he said, had acted "unconstitutionally in giving the president a free hand to choose the prime minister". "They should have abstained or put forward other names," said Hariri.
Sources close to Hariri said the second clause of Article 53 of the constitution was amended to curb some presidential powers in favour of the premier. Nevertheless, Hariri withdrew for reasons of his own. "During former President Elias Al-Hrawi's mandate, Hariri was the leading politician in the country," one analyst said. "He then got bogged down in a power struggle with Lahoud, who wanted to play a leading role in the formation of the government, which undermined Hariri's position. They had different views. Lahoud flexed his political muscle, Hariri tried to pressure him and subsequently Lahoud called the bluff."
Lahoud came to power with strong backing from Syria, France and the United States. He was sworn into office last week after all 128 deputies approved his nomination, reflecting public confidence in the new president and hopes that major reforms will be carried out in the country which suffered 15 years of civil war.
Hariri also felt betrayed by the 31 parliamentarians, among them close allies. Lahoud will now hold further consultations and reports indicate former Prime Minister Selim Al-Hoss, who is also a deputy, will head the next cabinet. Hariri has been prime minister since 1992 and analysts fear confidence in the Lebanese pound will be shaken if Hariri leaves office. He is also viewed by leaders around the world as the man who brought Lebanon back onto the international stage. "It was Hariri with his close ties with world leaders and his credibility that put an end to the Israeli onslaughts against Lebanon in 1993 and 1996," a source close to the premier told the Weekly. "I wonder what will happen if Israel does launch an attack now. Will the new leadership be able to do anything?"
The political changes coincided with calls by some Israeli politicians to attack Lebanon in response to the mounting casualties in the occupation zone. Netanyahu is not revealing what Israel plans to do, but security sources here expect the situation to calm down after the US urged restraint by both sides. There are also reports that Washington will soon launch an initiative to restart the Syrian, Lebanese and Israeli peace negotiations.
This view is shared by Hizbullah: "We are ready for any eventuality and we warn the enemy we will respond to any attacks against Lebanese civilians," said Hizbullah Deputy Secretary-General Sheikh Naem Qassem. "But an all-out Israeli military strike is unlikely because it will not have any military or political benefits. In fact, it may have a negative effect."
Political observers in Lebanon say Hizbullah is unlikely to try to push the Israelis too far.
Military officials in Israel acknowledge the increasing effectiveness of Hizbullah saying its tactics have become more sophisticated, denting the Israeli image of invincibility. The Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) have been unable to break the back of the resistance movement and many troops, unable to defend themselves, have been largely confined to concrete bunkers.
Israeli officials say Syria is responsible for the recent escalation in fighting, in an attempt to pressure Israel into resuming peace talks.
Israel knows it cannot guarantee security on its northern border unless it makes peace with Syria, which is the main power broker in Lebanon. Beirut says it will not give Israel security guarantees without a peace treaty. Lahoud's election also gave Syria further support. Damascus welcomed Lahoud's inaugural address, saying he stripped "Israel of any illusions it had about trying to make a separate peace with Lebanon."
"It is in our supreme national interest to pursue peace talks with Israel simultaneously with Syria," Lahoud said.
Lahoud is remaining firm, insisting the threats of possible Israeli retaliation will not deter the state from supporting the resistance or undermine relations with Syria. "We will not submit to blackmail and the Israeli escalation does not frighten us," he said.
The Israeli government is facing its worst crisis over the occupation of southern Lebanon since its massive offensive against the country in April 1996. There is mounting pressure at home to pull troops out and Israeli reports said the government may consider reducing the number of outposts in the occupied zone. Some ministers such as Internal Security Minister Avigdor Kahalani demanded that "for each soldier killed, pain should be inflicted on Lebanon, such as targeting its infrastructure."
On Friday, the Israeli army warned Lebanese civilians it was preparing to bombard a string of areas and called on those living just north of the zone to take precautionary measures. But it did not give a specific time for the attacks.
While it is still not clear what action Israel will take, analysts say an agreement without Syria would not solve the crisis.