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Israel Informs UN Of Definite Plans To Exit Lebanon line
Moving swiftly to guard valuable new momentum from Syrian machinations, Israel formally notified United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan on Monday that it intends to withdraw its forces from Lebanon by July in full cooperation with the UN and full compliance with Security Council resolution 425.

Israel's Ambassador to the UN, Yehuda Lancry, delivered to Annan a letter from Foreign Minister David Levy officially announcing the IDF will complete its withdrawal from the south Lebanon security zone no later than July 9, in adherence with UNSC resolutions 425 and 426. Levy's three-paragraph letter said the Israeli government "will do its utmost to assist the United Nations and cooperate in performing its other tasks as encompassed in the resolutions, including the restoration of international peace and security."

After US efforts to revive the Syrian peace track failed last month, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak turned his attention to finding an another way to arrange an orderly exit from Lebanon. Annan met with Levy in Geneva on April 4 and gave Barak a face-saving commitment that the UN would coordinate the withdrawal with Israel under the provisions of resolution 425.

But just as Israel's plans gathered steam internationally, Syria and its puppet government in Lebanon began throwing obstacles in the way, demanding the UN first disarm radical elements in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon and that Israeli forces end all forays into Lebanon's air space or territorial waters. After meeting last week with Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Shara in Havana, Annan requested a written Israeli commitment to implement 425 before the UN could start preparations for the withdrawal.

The US - who will spearhead on Israel's behalf the diplomatic effort in the Security Council - pressed Barak to promptly comply with Annan's request. Levy apparently moved up delivery of the letter to Monday, to avoid a potentially costly delay due to the eight-day Jewish holiday of Passover, which begins this evening.

The letter essentially commits Israel to a pullback to the border demarcated by the UN Secretary General in 1978, and to dismantling army bases built on the other side of this border in the interim. Levy wrote Annan that Israel now expects the UN to honor its role in restoring calm to the border area. To do so, Annan has indicated he will ask the Security Council to enlarge the current contingent of UNIFIL troops in the area from 4,500 to 7,000.

Annan informed Shara of Israel's intentions later on Monday and meet with the Lebanese and Syrian ambassadors to the UN to discuss his own plans. Annan also is expected to dispatch UN special Mideast envoy Terje Larsen to Syria and Lebanon to discuss the forthcoming Israeli withdrawal. In addition, the Security Council is expected to approve today a presidential statement welcoming the Israeli move and asking Annan to get the ball rolling.

Levy was in Paris yesterday, where he said that the UN would play a key role in deciding the agreed boundary line between Israel and Lebanon. He told reporters after meeting his French counterpart, Hubert Vedrine, that "the withdrawal will be at the line accepted by the experts of all parties involved - the United Nations, Lebanon, and Israel."

After weeks of what US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright termed "strange" equivocation, Lebanese Prime Minister Salim Hoss on Tuesday fully welcomed the Israeli announcement, hailing it as a "victory." In a press statement, Hoss claimed, "For the first time in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, Israel is forced to withdraw from an Arab territory... it is a crushing defeat for Israel." Also of note is what the the statement did not say, as some of Lebanon's recent conditions for such a withdrawal were conspicuously absent.

But separately, Hoss was quoted as again warning that Lebanon refused to be responsible for curbing future cross-border violence. "If Israel, one of the Middle East's biggest military powers, cannot keep its border with Lebanon secure, how can it hold Lebanon responsible?" he queried.

In Syria, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said Damascus was pleased for Lebanon, but wanted Israel to implement all UN resolutions calling for the return of occupied Arab land. The government controlled press continued to lash out at Israel's course of action.

But back in Beirut, Lebanese Christian students staged two days of demonstrations calling for the removal of both Israeli and Syrian troops from Lebanon. In another shining example of French straight talk of late, France's defense minister Alain Richard charged in a radio interview on Monday that Syria does not actually want an accord with Israel because it would mean having to leave Lebanon. "[T]o speak very frankly... any settlement that would lead to calling into question its domination over Lebanon, even if it means regaining [the Golan], does not suit it," he said.

Meanwhile, in the security zone on Tuesday, Hizb'Allah units attacked an Israeli outpost with deadly-accurate anti-tank missiles, wounding two IDF soldiers, with one suffering a fractured skull. Israeli retaliatory fire killed a Syrian worker and wounded four others, Lebanese officials said. Hizb'Allah responded by deliberately firing six long-range Katyusha rockets across the border into northern Israel. Northern residents are on high alert as Pessach nears - Hizb'Allah makes it a habit to strike during Jewish holidays - and Israeli jets continued sorties against the sources of Hizb'Allah fire into early Wednesday morning.

PM Barak said this morning that Israel would do everything possible to keep the North quiet during the Passover holidays, while military sources said Hizb'Allah has stepped up its activity in the security zone over the past few weeks hoping to torpedo plans for the IDF pullout.

Barak also said today that if Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad is truly interested in peace - as some diplomats are still saying - he must go to the White House because of the negative answers he gave to US President Bill Clinton in Geneva last month. Barak added that he is not optimistic about the Syrian track.

Meanwhile, Assad's British biographer, Patrick Seale, was back to offering his advice freely, not only to Barak but to his own literary subject as well. In an open letter to both leaders published on Monday in the London-based AL-HAYAT, Seale urged Assad to make more "gestures towards Israel [to] contribute to a greater willingness by Israel to make concessions in negotiations."

Addressing Assad directly, he said no one doubts his desire for an honorable peace with Israel, "but the way you go about it sometimes seems to send a contrary signal. You may need to consider changing the manner in which you address your Israeli negotiating partner... you need to take into account the fears and volatility of a country that has lived for half a century behind an iron wall." he wrote. "Israelis seek a fundamental reassurance that Syria will not be a future threat, a reassurance you alone can give by gestures of good will, by the tone of your press, by the behavior of your negotiators, by your vision of what normal, peaceful relations will be like once an agreement is reached."

Seale also called on Barak not to give up on the suspended talks. "Long-term security," he told Barak, "cannot be based on the seizure of Arab territory."

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