Hizb'Allah dealt Israel two costly blows in the south Lebanon security zone in late February that propelled domestic debate over an exit strategy to the fore of election campaign issues. As political and military heavies weighed in, much anguish centred on Syria's stranglehold over Lebanon and the question of exchanging the Golan for quiet in the north.
Things had been looking up of late, from a tactical standpoint. Israeli military claimed success in foiling a number of roadside bomb attacks. And after abandoning several outposts, the IDF and their SLA allies re-entered the village of Arnoun, which Hizb'Allah bomb-laying squads were using for cover.
But on February 23, three Israeli officers were killed and five wounded in clashes with Hizb'Allah. The dead included the commander of an elite paratrooper commando unit. Israel scored a quick payback, claiming 4 gunmen shot in a 24-hour chase. But the game tilted when Hizb'Allah answered with a roadside bomb that killed four, including a radio journalist and a brigadier-general serving as Israel's chief liaison with UNIFIL.
Israeli aircraft struck deep into the Beka'a with precision weapons, and border towns were ordered to sleep in shelters. But the hottest action came closer to home, as Hizb'Allah gloating inflamed passions over the withdrawal quandary, even as the army warned of possible Islamist terror hits over Purim.
In Beirut, Hizb'Allah celebrated amid indications of prior knowledge of IDF moves. Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah taunted Israel as too proud to pull out, saying "unconditional withdrawal is admission of defeat." Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's security cabinet considered further retaliation - including a land and sea offensive - but were restrained by memories of the 100 civilians shelled at Kfar Kana which cost Shimon Peres dearly in the 1996 election.
Vying for votes, both Labour's Ehud Barak and Netanyahu pledged to secure a deal for withdrawal within a year of being elected, although Netanyahu said he would not commit to a date. Centre party candidate Yitzhak Mordechai's was handicapped by his firm opposition to a unilateral withdrawal during two-and-a-half years as head of the defence portfolio. Kol Israel reported that Labour leaders determined to keep the issue centre stage, but that senior army officials denounced Barak for "an unrealistic political gimmick" that was "distracting to the soldiers in Lebanon."
Top IDF brass assessed that Hizb'Allah does not recognise the border between Israel and Lebanon, and would continue to launch attacks even if Israel withdrew unilaterally. Backed by recent reports that Lebanon itself holds territorial ambitions toward the Galilee, the head of the southern command was quoted as saying Hizb'Allah's real goal is not to get Israel out of Lebanon, but to get Israel out of Jerusalem. In this view, Hizb'Allah fighters are not Lebanese patriots, but proxies of Iran and Syria who advocate a radical Islamist agenda of ridding the Middle East of Israel and of Western influences. (see Backgrounder)
In a surprise move that Ma'ariv labelled the "most important diplomatic development on the Lebanese issue since Israel created the security zone," Lebanese Prime Minister Salim Hoss told the BBC an Israeli pull-back from south Lebanon would effectively revive the 1949 armistice agreement between the two countries and end hostilities across the border. The Israeli government quickly welcomed the comments: Netanyahu responded that "if Lebanon is serious… it will find in Israel a willing partner." But several hours later, Hoss reversed course, falling back on its customary demand for unconditional withdrawal; most suspected a Syrian hand.
Last year Netanyahu offered to withdraw from the zone, based on UN Security Council resolution 425, but only if Lebanon deployed its army to fill the security vacuum and ensure quiet along the frontier. Lebanon and Syria balked, clinging to a different interpretation of the UN resolution. Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon also had offered his own remedy: staged withdrawals and heavy reprisals if attacks persist.
Enter newly-appointed but veteran Defense Minister Moshe Arens, who threatened to abandon the rules of engagement of the 1996 US-brokered "Grapes of Wrath" understandings for seriously handicapping Israel in fighting Hizb'Allah units routinely operating from civilian areas. "The understandings create… an asymmetry which I think everybody realises makes it very difficult for the IDF," explained Arens.
Arens instructed his General Staff to study all available options, including a unilateral withdrawal, but cautioned: "I am not convinced that the way to deal with the Lebanese problem is necessarily through negotiations." He added: "Lebanon is not a country in the real sense of the word. It is ruled by the Syrians. There is just a pretence of it being an independent country."
Concluding the series of candid statements, Arens said he favours negotiating with Syria, but "there is no chance of reaching an agreement with the Syrians without a total surrender of the Golan. Anyone who says differently is deluding himself or the public."
Israel has asked the US to seek clarifications of Hoss' reference to the 1949 armistice agreement. And Arens personally requested US State Department official Martin Indyk to explore possible ways of "halting the erosion" in the Grapes of Wrath understandings in a meeting with Syrian President Hafez Assad. In response, Sheikh Nasrallah said Hizb'Allah will not accept any temporary truce before Israel's elections, nor any alterations to the rules of engagement.