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
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
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.