(Article by Ron Ben-Yishai, Yediot Ahronot, "Shabbat Supplement," 13.3.98, pp. 10-11)

For now, Syria has the upper hand in the Lebanese arena. Over the past two weeks, Assad has applied pressure on Lebanon's leaders, received help from friends in Moscow and Paris, and -- for the time being -- succeeded in blocking the Mordechai-Netanyahu initiative. However, the nervousness that the initiative has aroused in the Syrian leadership and the effort that Assad and his close aides have been forced to invest in order to derail the Israeli move were larger this time than in the past. On the basis of this fact and the recent public and secret statements of Lebanese leaders, several experts on Lebanese affairs in the Israeli defense establishment have reached the conclusion that something is moving in the Lebanese arena. Something is moving in the right direction, from Israel's point of view.

This "something," say the experts, still does not alter the overall picture. It also certainly is no assurance that if the IDF unilaterally withdraws to the international border, Israel's northern communities will be freed from the danger of attacks and Katyushas. However, the reactions in Lebanon to the Israeli initiative, which talks about an unwritten arrangement of understandings with Lebanon that will ensure peace for the northern communities on the one hand, and the fate of SLA soldiers on the other, arouses hope. It is quite possible, say these same experts, that if Israel succeeds in garnering broad international support for the initiative, it will be possible to overcome Syrian opposition, and perhaps even to receive Assad's blessing for the agreement.

It should be noted that only a minority among those dealing with Lebanon in the Israeli establishment share this assessment. Senior intelligence assessment officials, for example, believe that nothing significant has changed. Hizballah Secretary-General Ahmed Nasrallah's supposedly moderate declarations, the vague promises that Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and President Elias Hrawi whispered in the ears of American and French diplomats, the encouraging statements at Danny Naveh's and Uzi Arad's secret meeting in Paris -- are nothing more than an attempt to satisfy the listeners, in the best tradition of the Levant. In the worst case, these same analysts say, this is an intentional misleading intended to fend off international pressure and to encourage public opinion in Israel to press the government to withdraw unilaterally from Lebanon without any conditions.

It is not at all important what Prime Minister Hariri or Secretary-General Nasrallah want, these analysts say. The Syrians control Lebanon completely and no Lebanese or international element will succeed in forcing them to give up the shedding of Israeli blood in southern Lebanon as a lever for achieving a withdrawal on the Golan Heights. In addition, it must not be forgotten, says one senior analyst, that Lebanon is currently Syria's main strategic and economic asset.

It is even more important to Assad than the Golan Heights. Therefore, he will not permit the Lebanese government to strengthen its position by disarming the the militias, which operate against Israel in southern Lebanon. Such an act could lessen the Lebanese government's dependency on the Syrian expeditionary force. This dependency, the Syrians believe, is vital for their continued strong hold in Lebanon.

Despite this, even if this analysis is entirely correct, the positive developments taking shape in Lebanon, from Israel's viewpoint, should be noted:

Hizballah: Turning Inward
Recently, a tendency has been discerned among Hizballah leaders to turn their glance inward to the Lebanese arena. One of the factors for this is the "revolt of the hungry," initiated and led by Sheikh Tufeili, Hizballah's former secretary-general and currently Nasrallah's rival. Tufeili headed the movement of farmers in Lebanon's Beka'a Valley, who made their living from growing drugs, and the Lebanon government has now cut off their livelihood. The movement, which turned violent, placed Hizballah's institutional leadership, headed by Nasrallah, in an embarrassing situation, and Nasrallah was presented as not being concerned about his supporters' welfare and livelihood.

Therefore, the experts assert, Nasrallah would prefer a unilateral Israeli withdrawal, which he could present as a military victory. Then, he could turn his attention to establishing Hizballah's standing as a political force within Lebanon, among other things by virtue of the prestige that he would garner because of the "victory" over Israel.

Another factor influencing Nasrallah is the change that occurred in the Iranian leadership. Nasrallah is one of the loyal followers of the conservative line led by Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran's spiritual leader. Now, Nasrallah sees how the moderate president, Muhammad Khatami, is accumulating power. His concern is that the moderate faction will win and then Hizballah will lose Iranian financial and military support. This development could lead him to the conclusion that it is worth his while to reap what gains he can in the military sphere, and to move into the political arena.

Nasrallah must also take into account that Israel's patience will soon wane, and Israel could strike a lethal blow at him and his rural supporters, which would cause him to lose prestige and support. No less important, analysts point to the fact that Hizballah has, in the past year, lost more than 100 fighters, among them the son of Nasrallah himself, and it is very possible that this fact, too, is influencing the militant sheikh to want to move into the political arena.

Against this background, one can understand the interview that Nasrallah gave this week to the French newspaper Le Figaro. In the interview, he said that if Israel withdraws from the security zone, he would not oppose the entry of the Lebanese army into the area evacuated, and that he would even cooperate with it. It should be noted, though, that in this same interview he refused to undertake to halt the attacks against Israel if the latter withdraws from southern Lebanon. "We have this card, we will speak when the time comes," he said.

Referring to this sentence, one senior IDF Intelligence Branch analyst says: "Hizballah has changed neither its objectives nor its raison d'etre and therefore it will continue to fight Israel, even if the IDF unilaterally withdraws from the security zone. Hizballah will chalk up the IDF's withdrawal to its credit, pick the fruit of this victory in the Lebanese political arena and continue -- with Iranian support and in cooperation with the Palestinians -- the war of attrition against Israel." Despite this, it appears that there is room to examine whether there is a basis for the opposite thesis, which speaks of a turning inward by Hizballah.

The Lebanese Government: Thinking About Money
Lebanese President Hrawi and Prime Minister Hariri are interested in the Israeli initiative, since it enables them to spread the control of their government over the south and to show their voting public that they are concerned about it. There are abundant economic opportunities in the south; construction and tourism projects from which Lebanese entrepreneurs, led by Hariri himself, could greatly profit. However, as long as the fighting continues, it is impossible to realize this economic potential. Therefore, Hariri is interested in anything that could calm the area and bring investors to it.

Hrawi and Hariri also know that if they enable the Lebanese army to disarm Hizballah, Amal and the Palestinian organizations, their dependency on the Syrians would decrease. Finally, the Hariri-Hrawi team knows that if Israel embarks on another large military action, like Operation Accountability or Operation Grapes of Wrath, this might also damage the infrastructure that they have labored to build in the Beirut area -- roads, bridges, power stations and water stations. And the great deal of capital that they have invested could be lost.

However, in the current situation, neither Hrawi nor Hariri can defy Assad. Only heavy international pressure on Syria could enable them to act according to their interest. The Israeli initiative could help them in this.

The Syrians: An Israeli Plot
There is no Syrian parallel to the positive signs coming from Lebanon and Hizballah. From there, the signs continue to be negative. Damascus, as is its wont, sees in the Israeli initiative a multi-faceted conspiracy, which is likely to harm various Syrian interests. Even the unilateral withdrawal proposed by the Four Mothers movement, without an agreement with Lebanon and without guarantees on the security of the northern communities, is seen by the Syrians as a plot. They are worried that it will deprive them of the "Lebanese card", and worse, lend legitimacy to a possible Israeli military strike against Syrian forces in Lebanon, with the intention of undermining Syrian control there. The Syrians, basing their views on the words of several IDF generals, are afraid that after Israel withdraws unilaterally from the security zone, it would be able to justify in the eyes of the international community a disproportionate military response to any attempt to harm it from Lebanon.

They know that they would be the preferred target for an Israeli strike of this kind. Syria also sees the initiative of Netanyahu and Mordechai as a trick. The objective, according to Damascus, is to present Israel as seeking peace, interested in withdrawal from Lebanon, and to leave Syria isolated internationally with its demand for Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, which would certainly be delayed for the duration of the carrying out of the Lebanese initiative. Assad also fears that an Israeli withdrawal might bring international pressure on him to guarantee Israel's security. He wants to continue shedding Israeli blood. Assad also does not want to allow Lebanon to steal the show from Syria in the UN Security Council, by diverting attention to itself, and away from the Golan Heights.

In the light of all this, it seems that if Israel wishes to extricate itself from the Lebanese quagmire, it must not act hastily. The active deployment in the field must continue, but alongside this must come intensive activity in Washington, Paris and Tokyo. These states can not only put pressure on Assad to moderate his tough stance on the question of a possible Israeli-Lebanese agreement, but they can also propose economic compensation for him, which will make him want to get involved in the process. Washington could also, if it so wished, take Syria off the list of states supporting terrorism.

At the same time, Israel can check if there is real substance to the developments -- positive from its point of view -- which appear to be taking place within Hizballah and the Lebanese government. So Israel could, after the appropriate preparations in the field, try to leave some of its positions in the eastern sector, in particular those guarding the road to Jezzine, and then observe how the other side responds.

It would also be possible, in this framework, to try out an alternative defense conception, involving technological means and mobile forces which would enter Lebanese territory when needed, on the basis of intelligence information.

This package would be completed by a clear and official warning that if the terrorist organizations attempt to use the measures taken by Israel to reduce its presence in the security zone for their own purposes, Israel will respond disproportionately, with all its strength. It will target the Lebanese civilian infrastructure, and also attack Syrian forces stationed in Lebanon.

Even if the signs, which experts in the security establishment are tending to view positively, turn out to have no substance, Israel must examine them carefully. We have already tried all of the other options.

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