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Middle East Digest

April/May 2000

In This Issue

From the Editor

The Arab/Muslim Nazi Connection

Old Man and the Sea
IDF Leaving Lebanon After Assad Sinks Golan Deal

Oslo in a Rut
Schedule Revised, But Same Old Issues Plague Israel-PA Talks

Mixing Faith And Politics
Israel, PA Court Pope During Holy Land Tour

Viewpoint - Les Enfants Terribles

News Briefs

Middle East Hourglass


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THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA

IDF Leaving Lebanon After Assad Sinks Golan Deal

In late March, US President Bill Clinton failed in a last-ditch effort in Geneva to budge ailing Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad from his cast-iron dictate on where to draw the new border if Israel were to leave the Golan Heights. Convinced the Syrian track was now closed, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak began searching for alternate "arrangements" for pulling the IDF out of south Lebanon by July and received a face-saving commitment from Secretary General Kofi Annan that the United Nations would help coordinate such a withdrawal under its "mandate" of Security Council resolution 425. But Israel is having to move swiftly to guard its valuable new momentum from Syrian machinations. Strangely, Damascus and Beirut are trying to sabotage the Israeli exit, threatening renewed cross-border flare-ups and reprisals against the SLA.

Since taking office, Barak has placed top priority on reaching an agreement with Syria over the Golan, in part to facilitate an orderly IDF withdrawal from south Lebanon by July, as promised in last year’s election. Talks with Syria resumed with high hopes last December, but quickly floundered after Assad proved unmovable and Hizb’Allah inflicted a series of painful blows against Israel and the SLA in the security zone. Yet despite the escalation in fighting and a wave of anti-Semitic rhetoric from Arab capitals, Clinton – with Barak’s consent – was quietly "giving his all" to revive the battered Syrian track.

While Clinton kept Assad engaged on the phone, Barak convened his Cabinet in late February to discuss for the first time a Lebanon withdrawal, believing it might lure Syria back to the peace table. But the session grew heated after Barak contended that his four predecessors in office - Yitzhak Shamir, Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Binyamin Netanyahu - had all agreed to return the entire Golan. With speculation already rampant the US was close to sealing a behind-the-scenes breakthrough, Barak’s remarks were widely viewed as a sign he was on the brink of surrendering the strategic Golan plateau. But in one way or another, Barak’s citing of each of the four prime ministers was soundly refuted over the next few days. And oddly, Barak contradicted his own position, since he requested and obtained five months earlier an official State Department clarification that no Israeli leader had ever committed to a total withdrawal from the Golan.

Just days later, Barak faced a sudden coalition crisis, as three key government partners - Shas, Yisrael B’Aliyah and the National Religious Party – voted in support of a Likud-sponsored bill in the Knesset that would require a "special majority" to approve a Golan referendum. Although the 60-53 vote was only on the bill’s preliminary reading, it signaled that Barak would have trouble passing a Syrian pact in this Knesset, and that he was dealing with Assad from a position of weakness.

The day after the Knesset defeat, the Syrians offered the Israeli leader a little double-edged advice to steer the course of capitulation. The official Syrian press urged him to defy the "racist and rancorous hotheads" who oppose a Golan deal or his government would collapse. Meanwhile, Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Shara warned Barak that plans for a unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon were "suicidal."

PLEASE DON’T GO: At the next Cabinet meeting, Barak won unanimous approval for his oft-repeated pledge to extract the IDF from south Lebanon by July. All 23 cabinet ministers concurred -- even those who had just voted against him on the Golan bill. The tally reflected the growing public support for leaving Lebanon, whereas Barak’s moves with Syria enjoy far less popularity. But the strong endorsement was fraught with risks, as it could either prod Syria to return to negotiations or expose Israel’s northern communities to increased attacks.

Syria garrisons some 35,000 troops in Lebanon to maintain a stranglehold over 90% of the country, and uses Hizb’Allah and other radical Islamic militias as proxies to slowly bleed Israel - 600 IDF soldiers have died in the security zone since 1985. If the IDF withdrew, Hizb’Allah would lose its pretext for attacking Israel, and Syria would lose its prime lever for prying Israel off the Golan. But Israeli analysts warn Barak’s strategy could easily backfire, since Assad might simply continue the fight along the new confrontation line. Barak threatened, "I don’t advise anyone to test our reaction when we are deployed on the international border," while other Israeli officials hinted that Syrian forces and interests in Lebanon may become direct targets.

In reaction, Damascus successfully swayed the Arab League – meeting in Beirut for the first time since 1956 – to oppose Israel’s departure, even though they have agitated for it for years. The 22-nation summit delivered a blistering message that the Arab world expected total surrender to Syria’s definition of a just and lasting peace in the region. This included a return to the pre-1967 borders on all fronts and the return of all Palestinian refugees to Israel. The harsh declaration also backed Hizb’Allah and urged all Arab states to freeze normalization of relations with the Jewish state.

The Palestinians were less than enthusiastic about the Syrian co-option of the refugee issue, viewing it as an unwelcome interference into their exclusive domain. The communiqué called the presence of some 350,000 Palestinians in Lebanon a "time bomb," and Lebanese officials began warning that radical Palestinian groups in refugee camps might resume operations against Israel. Syria controls camps around Beirut, and has ordered the Lebanese army to round up loyalists of PLO leader Yasser Arafat in charge of camps in the south. Bashar Assad – son and heir apparent of the Syrian dictator – now calls the shots in Lebanon, and likewise threatened a Palestinian insurgency.

Remarkably, Egypt tried to convince their Arab colleagues gathered in Beirut that Israel’s redeployment was something to be welcomed. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak ironically was trying to curtail the wave of hostility created by his own landmark visit to Lebanon in February. Mubarak’s change of heart came because of hints the Syrian talks were back on track. Rumors and press reports abounded that the bulk of a final accord had been concluded – a leading Israeli TV commentator claimed a deal was "in the bag" – although US, Israeli and Syrian officials all issued weak denials.

LAKESIDE DIPLOMACY: Just as many predicted, Clinton and Assad agreed to meet in Geneva to discuss terms for resuming negotiations. Since US diplomats had stressed the process would not be renewed in public unless and until they were sure of its eventual success, most assumed a deal was close. Assad, rumored to be suffering from leukemia and dementia, ordered a rare shakeup of his cabinet in mid-March to ensure a smooth transition of power to his son Bashar, who he hopes will be supported by the waning Clinton presidency. Barak also had been stressing the need to secure a quick deal with Assad before he leaves the scene, although a Gallup poll found nearly 80% of Israelis believe Israel should wait until a new leader solidifies control in Damascus.

Arab and Israeli sources noted Assad rarely leaves Damascus, and when asked on the eve of the summit if he had a concrete offer for the Syrian ruler, Clinton said it was safe to assume "I wouldn’t waste his time." Clinton reportedly was set to offer Assad up to $15 billion in US aid and clarified with Barak exactly what he was willing to throw into the bargain. Barak authorized Clinton to convey to Assad an offer to draw the new line – though it would be called the "June 4, 1967 border" to placate Syria – somewhere between the uncharted front lines prevailing on the eve of the Six-Day War and the 1923 international line set by Britain and France that runs generally a kilometer or two to the east. The main border alteration sought by Barak was an exchange of a narrow 100-150 meter-wide strip of shoreline on the Kinneret for the warm springs at Hamat Gader, near the junction of the Yarmuk and lower Jordan rivers. Otherwise, Barak showed new flexibility on security arrangements and an early-warning station on Mount Hermon, betting that a package of advanced American weapons and intelligence-gathering gizmos could substitute for the strategic depth of the Golan. In return, Clinton expected to receive Assad’s assurances concerning water, security, and normalization.

As the two rendezvoused in Switzerland on March 26 for Clinton’s "last chance" to broker peace, a breakthrough seemed so imminent Barak reportedly was waiting at a moment’s notice to travel to Geneva himself. But the talks collapsed as Assad refused to concede a beachhead on the Kinneret, lecturing Clinton: "I have held barbecues at the Sea of Galilee, swam in its waters, sat on its shores and eaten fish from it. I have no intention of giving it up." When Clinton warned Assad that "generations will go by" before Israeli-Syrian relations improve if there is no progress now, Assad replied Syria "is prepared to wait for generations."

A deflated Clinton quickly departed for Washington, and several days later blamed the impasse directly on Assad, charging "the ball’s in his court now" to respond to Israel’s "quite significant" proposals. Syria countered that Clinton brought nothing new to Geneva, and simply pressured Assad to accept old Israeli positions, but even Barak concluded that the stubborn Syrian dictator had "removed his mask," revealing he is "not ready for… peace."

COVER MY BACK: In the wake of the Geneva fiasco, Barak was anxious to begin building international support for "Plan B" – leaving Lebanon without an agreement. But Clinton asked for three more weeks to exhaust any lingering prospects on the Syrian track. However, the US soon relented, and the evacuation from Lebanon and the lagging Palestinian track assumed top priority.

Barak admitted border skirmishes could continue following the IDF exit, however "with time things will stabilize, because they have to stabilize." But he clashed with Israeli military chiefs over where to erect the new line of defense. IDF brass advised retaining a series of existing outposts within a half-kilometer of the border, the only place they could "morally" assume responsibility for protecting the Galilee. But Barak opted to leave Lebanon completely – to remove any pretext for future attacks. Yet Syria and its terrorist proxies will cite any excuse to keep the conflict in Lebanon alive. In recent weeks, Hizb’Allah clerics have cited "Jerusalem," the "occupied Golan Heights," and the "Palestinian question" as valid reasons for fighting on; one even demanded "the return of the Jews to where they came from." Both Lebanon and Syria said they will not prevent border attacks absent a comprehensive peace agreement, and again warned that radical Palestinian groups may rejoin the battle. At one point, Lebanon’s hard-line defense minister even suggested that Syrian troops occupy south Lebanon in order to threaten Tel Aviv with missiles.

Yet many Lebanese are concerned about Syria setting off a spiraling conflict, especially through Palestinian militias that once threw the country into a 15-year-long civil war. They question why Assad does not open up his own border with Israel on the Golan to terrorism if he is not happy with an Israeli pullout.

Israel’s pending withdrawal also sparked calls for a simultaneous pullout of Syrian troops, as required by UN resolution 520 and at least three separate agreements brokered by the Arab League. In a rare note of defiance, leading Arabic papers in London and Beirut wrote of Lebanese fears that Syria aimed to "swallow" their smaller neighbor, and pleaded with Damascus to develop plans for a troop departure as a sign it intends to respect Lebanese sovereignty. One scathing editorial said, "stop using the Palestinians and Lebanese as pawns in [your] attempts to regain the Golan." Lebanese Christian students also staged several days of demonstrations calling for the removal of Syrian troops, while a barracks for Syrian workers near Sidon was mysteriously bombed three times in a month.

Egypt also expressed support for Israel’s decision to exit Lebanon, grilling the Syrian regime, "If you don’t want the Israelis to leave Lebanon, why don’t you just ask them to stay?" Barak was banking on similar common sense reactions from the international community.

In a meeting with Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy on April 4 in Geneva – the same venue where the Syrian track ran aground the previous week – Kofi Annan gave Barak a face-saving commitment that the UN would coordinate plans with Israel for withdrawing from Lebanon under the provisions of resolution 425. Annan told Levy he preferred a beefed-up UNIFIL to fill the "vacuum" created in the wake of Israel’s pullout, so that no side could bring about "any deterioration of the situation." Currently, UNIFIL is weakly manned by smaller member states (some of whom want to abandon the mission), hampered by budget shortages and used as shields by Hizb’Allah.

ANY EXCUSE WILL DO: Annan’s announcement gave a crucial boost to Barak’s bid for an "arranged" withdrawal that would reduce chances of cross-border flare-ups and protect the SLA from harsh reprisals. Israel also was requesting the UN to verify a full withdrawal to the international border certified in a 1978 report by then-UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim.

But just as Israel’s diplomatic campaign gathered steam, Syria and its puppets in Lebanon began throwing obstacles in the way, demanding the UN first disarm radical Palestinian elements in Lebanon and guarantee Israel will end all forays into Lebanon’s airspace and territorial waters. Lebanon also demanded an Israeli withdrawal to the 1923 boundary set by Britain and France, without specifying how it varies from the 1978 UN line. Ironically, the Syrians are arguing for a third frontier, as they want Israel to redeploy on all fronts to the June 4, 1967 ceasefire lines. The boundary question may prove difficult to resolve, since none of these borders were ever fully marked in the field - serving as yet another pretext for violence.

The Assad regime increasingly sensed Israel was managing to isolate Damascus and expose its domination over Lebanon. Hoping to stymie Israel’s momentum, FM Shara met in Havana with Annan, who afterwards said the UN could not proceed until Israel committed in writing to a full and unconditional exit from Lebanon in strict compliance with 425.

Barak was hastily summoned by Clinton to Washington, where both leaders relegated the Syrian track to the distant back burner and Clinton endorsed the IDF withdrawal as in accord with UN resolutions. He questioned: "What justification will anyone have for violence?" US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright also commented on the "strange criticism" it has evoked in Lebanon, which has badgered Israel for years to unconditionally leave at once.

ABOUT FACE: Realizing they were starting to look silly, Syria and Lebanon finally welcomed Israel’s retreat, charging that Barak was deceiving the world by saying they were opposed to such a move. "Such a withdrawal is for sure supported by Syria and Lebanon, because it is considered a victory for the Lebanese resistance and all the Arabs," said Shara. After weeks of equivocation, Lebanese Prime Minister Salim Hoss also belatedly hailed it as a "victory," claiming, "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."

But separately, Hoss warned that Lebanon refused to be responsible for curbing border violence, and Syria’s official press continued to lash out at Israel’s course of action. More ominously, top Syrian officials met with several Palestinian terrorist chiefs, including Hamas leaders recently given a new home in Damascus. As if on cue, pro-Syrian PLO units in Lebanon vowed "There will be no peace, no security and no stability to the occupier," and stepped up recruiting and military training efforts.

Undeterred, Barak lifted a building freeze on the Golan – to the immense relief of local residents – and FM Levy formally notified Annan of Israel’s firm plans to leave Lebanon by July 7, in cooperation with the UN and full compliance with resolution 425. Levy’s letter essentially commits Israel to a pullback to the 1978 UN border, and to dismantling IDF bases in Lebanon. Levy wrote Israel now expects the UN to honor its role in restoring calm to the border area. Annan started the ball rolling in the Security Council and indicated he will seek an enlargement of UNIFIL from 4,500 to 7,000 troops.

With an IDF pullback looming ever closer, thousands of south Lebanese face an agonizing decision - flee their homes or stay and face harsh reprisals. After fighting - and dying - for peace in their local, hilly turf, most of the zone’s residents consider themselves "patriots," but Hizb’Allah has vowed to punish them as "traitors." Israel says it might take some in, but most in the resilient community would prefer to remain under some form of protection and eventually reunite peacefully with their Lebanese brethren. They are clinging to hopes that Western nations - so averse to the plight of refugees - will step in prevent Syria and its terrorist proxies from exacting revenge and fomenting another refugee crisis. Otherwise, they have vowed to continue defending themselves and are opposing plans for disarming them of everything but light personal weapons.
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