Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
13 - 19 April 2000
Issue No. 477
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

 
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The present impasse

By Mohamed Sid-Ahmed

Mohamed Sid-Ahmed From the very start, the Middle East peace process did not proceed along a well-defined and clearly marked course. But never before has it been as shrouded in uncertainty as it is now. At this stage, the only thing that can be regarded as certain is that Israel will withdraw from southern Lebanon by no later than, and possibly even before, 7 July.

There is no doubt that the withdrawal represents a victory for the Lebanese resistance movement, particularly for Hizbollah, which led the armed resistance against Israeli occupation and forced Barak to invoke UN Security Council Resolution 425 to justify an unconditional Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon.

However, it would be wrong to explain the Israeli decision only as an admission of defeat in face of Hizbollah's systematic harassment of the Israeli occupation forces. Rather, Barak's sudden determination to implement a UN resolution that Israel has been flouting for the past twenty-two years can be explained as an attempt to compensate for Israel's failed expectations from last month's Geneva meeting between Assad and Clinton. Although Clinton described the meeting as "very constructive," Assad refused to be drawn into the trap Barak had laid for him.

The Geneva meeting failed because Barak rejected what was in effect Assad's only condition to resume the negotiations, namely, an explicit Israeli commitment to withdraw from the Golan Heights up to the 4 June 1967 borders. The preliminary talks held between Clinton aides and the Syrian side before the Geneva summit led Assad to believe that Barak was ready to recognise the pre-'67 war borders. Instead, Clinton came to Geneva bearing a map presented by the Israelis on which the border ran between the 4 June 1967 line and the international frontier established in 1923 by France and Britain, the colonial powers of the time, effectively depriving Syria of access to the Sea of Galilee. Thus although the difference between the two lines covers only a limited area, Assad refused to even consider the proposal, which would restore most of the land conquered by Israel in 1967 but not the access to a vital source of water that Syria had enjoyed before the war.

Barak's renewed determination to go ahead with a unilateral Israeli pullout from southern Lebanon following the failure of the Geneva meeting places Assad in an awkward position. Indeed, it is the only card by which he can induce the Syrian president to return to the negotiating table. Barak is confident that Clinton will strongly support his decision to end Israel's Lebanese adventure, not only because it is a decision no Arab party can oppose -- at least, not openly -- but, more important, because it guarantees a reactivation of the peace process. This is vital for Clinton, who is keen to achieve clear-cut results before his term is over (only a few weeks are left before the limelight passes over to his successor) and ensure for himself a place in history. Moreover, the Barak initiative improves Israel's bargaining power by deepening inter-Arab contradictions. It is no secret that relations are totally severed between Syria and the PA. A unilateral Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon can bring about a rift between Syria and Lebanon, even between Lebanon and the Palestinians.

These factors make for a strange equation in which an occupying power wants to end its 18-year long occupation of Lebanon, while the parties who have been calling for just such a move throughout the same period are now expressing reservations about the restoration of Lebanon's territorial integrity! The continued Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon allows Syria to put pressure on Israel through Hizbollah, while ending the occupation will deprive Syria of this important bargaining chip. A unilateral withdrawal can also create new dynamics whose results are hard to foresee.

For example, what would happen if, after Israel removes the military shield that protected it against incursions from inside Lebanon, radical Lebanese factions rebel against Syria and refuse to go along with any settlement it might reach with Israel? Israeli officials have threatened that attacks on Israeli civilians or troops will be met with tough reprisals, but have not spelt out what form these reprisals would take. Israel's response could be similar to its previous raids against Lebanon or escalated into something far more intense. It could even target the Syrian military presence in Lebanon, raising the possibility of outright war.

Adding a new ingredient to the already volatile brew, Lebanese Defence Minister Ghazi Zaiter recently stated that Lebanon might ask Syria to deploy its troops in southern Lebanon in case of a unilateral Israeli withdrawal. Contrary to what might have been expected, Barak reacted coolly and tersely to the proposal, while Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Al-Shara was quick to dissociate his country from the Lebanese defence minister's remarks, asserting that "what is required is negotiations and peace, not war with Israel."

In his statement, Zaiter warned that the new positioning of the Syrian troops would bring Tel Aviv into the range of Syrian missiles. But however bellicose Zaiter's rhetoric, there are good reasons to believe that it is actually a smokescreen for a peaceful way out of the present impasse. It is well known that the Syrian forces in Lebanon were called in by the Lebanese authorities at a critical moment of Lebanon's civil war, and that the then Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, approved the move, provided the Syrian troops went no further than an imaginary red line. Damascus has been careful never to cross the red line, exactly as it always kept the Golan front quiet, irrespective of what happened on the Lebanese front, where the resistance movement, led by the Syrian-supported Hizbollah, relentlessly fought the Israeli occupation forces.

The replacement of Israeli by Syrian troops in southern Lebanon will not necessarily harm the peace process, especially if the Syrian presence along the Lebanese-Israeli border is to be of a low-profile nature, that is, minus such offensive weapons as missiles. And, if peace agreements are reached between Syria and Israel, the Syrian presence could become a guarantor of stability in southern Lebanon. The proposal could even be seen by Damascus as an appealing alternative to a complete Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal.

But the Lebanese proposal can also embarrass Damascus, which will either have to move forward quickly to an agreement with Israel or become hostage to the activities of Lebanon's extremist factions, a development that would further complicate its negotiations with Israel. It is already difficult enough for Syria to adopt the traditional Israeli policy that there can be no withdrawal from any front in the absence of an agreement (a policy from which Israel is departing for the first time in the case of Lebanon). If Israel can adopt such a stand as an occupying power, no Arab party can afford to do the same. The only interest Syria has in opposing a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon is that this could jeopardise its restitution of the Golan.

Israel is requesting the deployment of an international peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon in place of the departing Israeli occupation force. This international force could either be created by the United Nations or outside the scope of the world organisation. Already such a force exists, the UNIFIL, which could be strengthened and restructured to serve the new purpose. Another possibility is the creation of a multinational force under European auspices. France being the friend of both Lebanon and Israel, French President Chirac has offered to play a key role in building such a force. It is more likely, however, that Barak would prefer the first scenario rather than the second, if only to keep the European powers outside the negotiation process and ensure that it remains under the exclusive sponsorship of the United States.

At the end of the day, however, all the parties involved would prefer to see the implementation of Security Council Resolution 425 and the withdrawal of Israeli forces from southern Lebanon effected by agreement between them. No such agreement can be envisaged in respect of an Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon without simultaneously providing for an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan, which can in turn not be envisaged unless it provides for a solution to the issue of water and not only of territory. Thus if Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon before 7 July is a certainty, the dynamics it creates will not be limited to the Lebanese aspect of the peace process only, regardless of the will of the protagonists.

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