THE ARAB BLUFF

OP-ED:

The Arab world's response to Israel's proposal for a withdrawal from Lebanon has set new standards for farce, even in a region in which the bizarre is the norm. For 20 years, the entire Arab world has been demanding a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon. Suddenly, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu says he is willing to do exactly that - and the Arab world has flatly rejected the offer. EVELYN GORDON reports.

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Lebanon, which might have been expected to be pleased at the prospect of getting its long-sought territory back, has said it would not accept south Lebanon on a platter unless Syria is given the Golan Heights at the same time. Such generosity is unprecedented: Egypt, for instance, had no qualms about signing a separate peace with Israel in order to get the Sinai back. By itself, however, this response would not have been so surprising. It merely provided additional proof, were any needed, of Syria's political domination of Lebanon, which forces Beirut to subordinate its own goals to those of Damascus.

Much more revealing was the second element of Lebanon's refusal. Israel's one condition for a withdrawal is that when the IDF pulls out, it be replaced by the Lebanese army, so that the security zone will actually become part of Lebanon again rather than de facto becoming an independent mini-state controlled by Hizb'Allah.

Logically, this demand would seem to coincide with Lebanon's interests. If Lebanon actually wants to regain control of what it claims as sovereign territory, deploying its army there is necessary -- both symbolically and practically. Yet Beirut said this requirement is unacceptable, making the strange claim that Israel is thereby asking the Lebanese army to defend Israel's citizens rather than its own.

Nor is Lebanon alone in this stand. Last week, the Arab League backed Lebanon's position regarding the deployment of its army, and said it "rejects the Israeli initiative pertaining to this issue".

It is hard to understand why the Arab world thinks Israel's demand is unreasonable. This is a much more minimalist position than Israel has ever taken in the past. It is not even demanding a peace treaty or diplomatic relations in exchange for its withdrawal: All it wants is an assurance that its concession will not give rise to unending terror attacks along its northern border. If the Arab world is truly interested in peace, is this too much to ask?

Even harder to understand, however, is why Lebanon thinks restraining Hizb'Allah attacks on Israel following an Israeli withdrawal would be contrary to its own interests.

Currently, the strategic value of these attacks is obvious: They are an excellent way of pressuring Israel to leave the security zone. If Israel leaves, however, Hizb'Allah attacks would promptly become a liability rather than an asset. At the very least, they would provoke retaliatory Israeli air strikes which would endanger Lebanese citizens; at worst, they could provoke another full-scale Israeli invasion of south Lebanon.

The unfortunate conclusion is that allowing Hizb'Allah's war on Israel to continue is much more important to both Lebanon and the Arab League than their stated goal of restoring Arab sovereignty to south Lebanon. If shutting down this war is the price of Israel's withdrawal, the Arab world is not willing to make a deal.

For years, the Arabs have been claiming that Israel's occupation of Arab lands is their sole reason for the 50-year state of war in the Middle East. Over and over, they have said that once these lands are returned, they would be willing to make peace.

Yet Israel has finally called the Arabs' bluff by caving in and offering a unilateral withdrawal from one of these lands - and even this has proven not to be enough. For many of these countries, it seems, the issue was never really land: The real priority is the war against the Zionist enemy.

Western diplomats, in contrast, have always taken Arab assertions about the land-for-peace equation at face value. As a result, they were initially receptive to Israel's Lebanon proposal. UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, for instance, welcomed the idea during his visit last week, and said he would be happy to help Israel work out the details of a withdrawal with Lebanon.

The unequivocal negative response from Lebanon and the Arab League, however, forces the West to make a choice. One option is the time-honoured route of closing its eyes to Arab cynicism and pressuring Israel to drop even this most minimal of security demands. The other option is to finally take a good hard look at what the Arabs' land-for-peace rhetoric really means.

There will never be a clearer statement than those made by the Arab world on Lebanon last week about where "land" and "peace" really sit on many Arab countries' priority lists. It is about time for the West to wake up to this fact.

* This piece first appeared in The Jerusalem Post on March 31, and is used with permission.


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