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UN to Arrange IDF Pullout from Lebanon

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak received a face-saving commitment on Tuesday from Secretary General Kofi Annan that the United Nations will coordinate plans with Israel in connection with an expected IDF withdrawal from Lebanon by July under the provisions of Security Council resolution 425.

In a meeting with Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy in Geneva - the same location where US efforts to broker peace with Syria foundered less than two weeks ago - Annan said the UN will use its "mandate" to implement resolution 425 to assist Israel in evacuating the security zone in south Lebanon. He told Levy it was important that no "vacuum" be created in the wake of Israel's pullout, so that no side would have a pretext to bring about "any deterioration of the situation."

The current contingent of UNIFIL troops in southern Lebanon would work to maintain quiet when Israel redeploys to the international border, Annan indicated, although it might be necessary to bolster the strength of UN forces there. "I will have to discuss this matter with the [Security] Council and we are doing our own contingency planning to determine if the force needs to be reinforced and how," he said.

It was welcome news for Levy and the Barak government, who decided last month to end the IDF's costly, unpopular 22-year presence in Lebanon by July, and began speeding up those plans after the failed Geneva summit between US President Bill Clinton and Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad in late March. Israel has hoped that, in the absence of a last-minute agreement with Lebanon and its Syrian overlords, the UN would mediate "arrangements" to reduce chances of a new cross-border flare-up with Hizb'Allah and protect members of the SLA and other zone residents from harsh reprisals.

Levy told Annan that the single-phase pullback is not conditioned on UN assistance, but Israel is keen to have it as a partner in the risky move. Afterwards, Levy said: "We have agreed to coordinate everything together to prepare the necessary mechanism... to create a climate of security and stability. We have to be very careful not to allow a settling of accounts or anything tragic there."

There was no public response to Levy's earlier invitation that the UN help set a timetable for the withdrawal and demarcate the international border. But Levy did suggest the Lebanese army could be swayed to eventually deploy southward to ensure quiet, and stressed the need for humane actions on behalf of the SLA and their families. He added a warning that anyone who tests Israel after the redeployment "will be extremely sorry."

The UN passed resolution 425 after Israel first entered Lebanon in 1978 to drive PLO terrorists north of the Litani river. It demands Israel "withdraw forthwith its forces from all Lebanese territory," and calls for the restoration of "peace and security" in the south and the return of the "effective authority" of the Lebanese government there. The accompanying UNSC resolution 426 created the multinational UN Interim Force in Lebanon to monitor implementation of 425.

Annan's public commitment of UN cooperation boosts Barak's efforts to garner broad international support for the withdrawal. Prior to leaving for Switzerland, Levy met on Monday with the US and French ambassadors to Israel to discuss the options of a beefed-up UNIFIL or a whole new peacekeeping force under European Union command.

Currently, UNIFIL is an ineffective force of 4,500 soldiers from nine UN member states (France, Fiji, Finland, Ghana, India, Ireland, Italy, Nepal and Poland), several of which want to withdraw their participation. It has budget shortages and has been used by Hizb'Allah as a shield against Israeli retaliatory strikes.

A new force could possibly be controlled by the EU, with heavy French involvement, in accord with President Jacques Chirac's recent offer to increase France's role in new security arrangements in Lebanon. ICEJ NEWS has learned that French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin opposes Chirac's proposal to send troops, which prompted Jospin to describe Hizb'Allah as "terrorists" during a recent visit to Israel.

A UNIFIL officer from Ireland today estimated the force would need an additional 2,500 personnel to successfully expand its presence into the security zone.

Barak said on Monday: "I'm not sure that there is a need for new forces, or additional ones in the UNIFIL framework; perhaps [there is room for] a small increase of people from the countries which are active today in UNIFIL." He continued to downplay predictions of an escalation of hostilities on the border and added: "I hope no one will dare... I really don't recommend to anyone to try us."

Barak acknowledged that Israel's presence in southern Lebanon has provided "an excuse or reason" for the fighting there, which would now cease with the IDF exit. But he suggested it also means the end of any justification for the presence of some 35,000 Syrian troops in Lebanon. "I would assume that the world and the will of the free nations will support this step and... will help the Lebanese regain their sovereignty. They are a member of the UN." By invoking resolution 425, Israel also puts into play its call for "strict respect for the territorial integrity, sovereignty and political independence of Lebanon."

Syria is nervous that Israel is managing to isolate the Assad regime and expose its stranglehold over Lebanon, and summoned Lebanese Prime Minister Salim Hoss to Damascus on Monday to coordinate positions. Hoss and new Syrian Prime Minister Muhammad Miro accused Israel of deliberately trying to separate them in order to undermine the peace process.

But Syria came under bitter new criticism from prominent Arab commentators in two London dailies earlier this week. One wrote in AL-HAYAT that if Lebanese officials do not perceive the IDF's withdrawal as an end to the state of war between them, they will have opted to allow their country to remain "an open battleground for the Syrians and Israelis."

In AL-QUDS AL-ARABI, another scathing editorial said "a new strategy must be adopted to eradicate corruption in the [Syrian] military establishment and lay the foundations for genuine democracy and freedom of expression. Repression must end." The writer also called on Syria to "stop using the Palestinians and Lebanese as pawns in its attempts to regain the Golan Heights... It is the shortsighted, racist-oriented Syrian policies against the Lebanese and Palestinians that led to the confusion the Lebanese government finds itself in today."

Adding to Assad's woes, US officials repeated in recent days Clinton's refrain that "the ball is squarely in Syria's court" to respond to the "serious" Israeli proposals put forward to him in Geneva. Although the Clinton Administration still harbors fading hopes of renewing Israeli-Syrian peace talks, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright signaled American backing of Israel's latest moves when she conferred on Monday with the UN's Annan about an IDF exit under 425.

With the cumbersome diplomatic process now rolling, one critical question is whether the SLA will continue to function independently, be disbanded, or - as they prefer - be absorbed into the Lebanese army. Israel's Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh said on Tuesday that Israel will not unilaterally disarm its allied militia, something which a UNIFIL spokesman today said must occur to restore peace to the area.

The SLA commander, Gen. Antoine Lahad, weighed in on the matter at the "Good Fence" on Monday, saying that his forces would not disband and flee, but stay put and defend themselves. "We would prefer to die on our land than become refugees in strange lands," he declared. It was the first clear statement by the leader of the south Lebanese community that a consensus is developing among the zone's residents to remain in their homes and keep fighting if outside help fails to bring calm. Lahad also revealed that he - like the vast majority of his people - did not personally plan to seek asylum abroad, as rumored. "I would be viewed by them as a traitor if I left now," he said.

Israeli officials have offered in principle to provide emergency refuge to any SLA members and their families who seek to flee retributions by Hizb'Allah and Lebanese forces. A real estate agent has found over 900 apartments in the north at the request of the IDF to accommodate them, but the number of potential takers is unknown at present.

Meanwhile, in the most significant sign of preparations for a pullout, the IDF has begun clearing a large field close to the border to be used as a transit point for military equipment being removed from the security zone. An additional $10 million in funds has also been approved by the IDF to enhance security around exposed northern communities, but Israeli residents along the border are increasingly anxious about the developing situation.

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