Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
6 - 12 April 2000
Issue No. 476
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Withdrawal dilemmas

As the Middle East waits in anticipation for a likely withdrawal of Israeli troops from their self-declared, 15 kilometre-wide, "security zone" in southern Lebanon, both the Syrian and Palestinian tracks appear to have been placed on the back-burner.

"We have enough reason to believe that the Israelis, this time, are serious about withdrawing," Foreign Minister Amr Moussa told reporters. "We appreciate concerns about the feasibility of this withdrawal, but it is supposed to be only a matter of weeks before we will see it."

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's special envoy was due in Lebanon late yesterday, and in Syria sometime today, to brief officials there about the outcome of Annan's meeting with Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy.

The mission of Terji Larsen, the UN assistant secretary-general for the Middle East peace process, is to promptly inform Beirut and Damascus of the Israeli position and listen to their reactions.

Levy had told Annan in New York on Tuesday that Israel would withdraw "in one go" from southern Lebanon by the end of July. Levy also said it was up to Annan and the UN Security Council to decide whether to increase the number of UN peace-keepers in the region. Some 4,500 peacekeeping troops, from nine nations, are currently in southern Lebanon.

"We know that there will be an Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon sooner rather than later [in accordance with the relevant UN] resolutions 425 and 426," British Minister of State for External Affairs Peter Hain told reporters in Cairo this week. Hain was in Egypt at the end of a peace related regional tour.

The withdrawal is not something that Lebanon welcomes, and Beirut has made public its worries that an Israeli withdrawal in the absence of a comprehensive peace settlement with Lebanon and Syria could only augment security problems there.

Lebanese Prime Minister Selim Al-Hoss discussed the planned Israeli withdrawal with Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Al-Sharaa, who visited Beirut earlier this week. Al-Sharaa distanced his country from the idea, suggested by Lebanese Defence Minister Ghazi Zeaiter, that Syrian troops might deploy in southern Lebanon after Israel's withdrawal.

Syria cautioned the UN yesterday against giving security guarantees to Israel following the withdrawal, saying Israel was not working for peace in the region.

The official daily Tishreen said an unconditional Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon would be welcome, but any security guarantees would allow Israel to ignore the quest for a just and comprehensive peace in the Middle East.

According to the newspaper -- "Tel Aviv has so far rejected withdrawal from occupied Arab lands to the [pre-war] 4 June 1967 lines as required by UN Security Council resolutions 242 and 338, despite Syria's readiness to conclude a just and secure peace."

Tishreen warned the UN "not to be dragged into this flagrant Israeli game of delusion" adding that "the UN force has been in the area for a long time, but was unable at any time to deter Israeli attacks which have been continuing daily since 1978."

Syria has been telling Arab countries, including Egypt, to refrain from supporting the planned withdrawal.

"Obviously, the Syrians feel that they will lose their leverage against Israel if this withdrawal is completed before Damascus reaches a deal with Tel Aviv. But nobody should exclude the possibility that a Syrian-Israeli deal might be reached by the end of July," commented an informed diplomatic source.

European diplomatic sources involved in the peace process told Al-Ahram Weekly that the Syrians and Israelis are maintaining indirect contacts, and that the vast majority of the points of disagreement have already been settled.

The European Union's special Middle East envoy, Miguel Moratinos, told reporters this week that there is a very good chance of seeing a Syrian-Israeli deal before the end of this year.

The bone of contention is that while Syria insists that withdrawal from the Golan Heights should be to the pre-1967 war borders, Israel wants to reach agreement first on the normalisation of relations.

Egypt has been in continuous touch with both the Syrians and Israelis to promote a deal. Over the past week, President Hosni Mubarak has been in regular telephone contact with Syrian President Hafez Al-Assad. And Al-Sharaa is expected in Cairo on Saturday for talks with top officials on the planned Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon and the stalled Israeli-Syrian negotiations.

Diplomatic sources told the Weekly that Al-Sharaa will once again hear Egypt's view on the Lebanese issue. "As Foreign Minister Moussa made it clear, we cannot ask Israel to continue its occupation of Arab land," a source said.

Moussa had repeatedly declared Egypt's uncompromising support for Syria's right to regain all its occupied territories. But Moussa also said that he has "a mental block" that keeps him from understanding, much less appreciating, the argument that Israel should not withdraw from southern Lebanon before a comprehensive deal is reached on both the Syrian and Lebanese tracks. He said, "Let them withdraw and let work continue to reach a deal."

Meanwhile, Egypt's ambassador to Israel, Mohamed Bassiouni, arrived in Cairo yesterday to discuss Egypt's future involvement in the peace process and convey a message expressing Tel Aviv's determination to withdraw from southern Lebanon. A possible meeting between President Mubarak and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak is also under discussion.

Dina Ezzat, wire dispatches

 

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