JERUSALEM (March 20) - The proposal to facilitate the IDF's withdrawal from south Lebanon under UN Security Council Resolution 425 is expected to top the agenda during UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's visit next week.
Senior government officials reportedly will try to persuade Annan to support the initiative, although without seeking his or the UN's active intervention at this stage.
In parallel, Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai is slated to visit the US later this month in an effort to garner American backing for the proposal, which, if accepted by Damascus, would be viewed by Israel as a confidence-building measure that could lead to the resumption of peace talks with Syria.
Government sources intimated that any breakthrough on the proposal would come about primarily through direct US involvement.
Only then is it likely that the UN will become involved, even though the resolution was passed by the Security Council 20 years ago, after the Litani operation.
The cabinet has not yet formally decided to adopt Mordechai's proposal, despite Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's public support for the initiative.
The proposal calls for security arrangements with Lebanon that would guarantee the security of the northern border and the safety of South Lebanese Army soldiers and their families.
The security cabinet is due to meet today to discuss the issue. Mordechai and Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Amnon Lipkin-Shahak are to brief the ministers.
The session will also take up National Infrastructure Minister Ariel Sharon's proposal for a unilateral evacuation, sector by sector, with the IDF prepared to move back into areas which are not kept clear of hostile personnel.
A government source contended that the underlying problem is the requisite disarming of Hizbullah. He said there is no guarantee that this would be undertaken by the Lebanese Army or any other legitimate party.
He said France had expressed great interest in the prospective pullout and indicated a willingness to play a role in the subsequent peacekeeping effort.
But the chances of either proposal being implemented are said to depend on whether the Lebanese government would enter into a security agreement with Israel and whether Syria would permit it do so.
This is based on the assumption that the Lebanese may not be able to disentangle its interests from Syria's overriding demand that Israel quit the Golan Heights, even if the Lebanon deal falls short of being a peace treaty.
Netanyahu met yesterday with SLA commander Gen. Antoine Lahad in Jerusalem to reassure him that Israel would not abandon its allies in the event of a decision to withdraw from south Lebanon.
Lahad said the SLA supports the 425 initiative because it is in Lebanon's best interests.
In the meantime, there have been reports of encouraging signs from Lebanon and Syria regarding the initiative.
Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri said on Wednesday that Lebanon and Syria are ready if Israel really wants peace. He reiterated that Lebanon and Syria are prepared to sign a peace accord with Israel within three months if it decides to withdraw from south Lebanon and the Golan Heights.
Channel 2 news reported that Israel has received a message from Damascus that Syria would not oppose a deployment of the Lebanese Army in south Lebanon in the event of an IDF withdrawal.
Syria and Lebanon have stressed, however, that they would only accept an unconditional and unilateral withdrawal.
Netanyahu, following his meeting with Lahad, was asked by reporters about Hariri's comments.
"I'm pleased to hear this announcement from Mr. Hariri. I hope that the Lebanese government will back its statement with practical willingness to implement the substance which arises from it," he said.
Annan is due to visit Lebanon today, following meetings in Jordan and Egypt. He is due to meet with Hariri and Lebanese Foreign Minister Farez Bouez in Beirut before travelling south tomorrow to UNIFIL's headquarters in Nakoura.
Annan is later scheduled to meet with Lebanese President Elias Hrawi.
He made it clear at a press conference in Cairo yesterday that he is not bringing any new initiatives with him.
"There are no new proposals from me, that is correct. In fact, I don't even think it would be appropriate for me to put new proposals on the table when there is a process in course, with the US mediating," he said.
Annan said that UN resolutions should be the basis for peace in the Middle East and the countries involved should be urged to compromise if needed. He added that he has ideas for the peace process, but now is not the time to propose them.
"We have our resolutions which are the basis of peace agreements and should continue to be the basis for other settlements," he told a news conference, after talks with Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Moussa.
He also met with President Hosni Mubarak and with Arab League Secretary-General Esmat Abdel-Meguid.