WHO IS STOPPING THE WITHDRAWAL?

(Op-ed by Yossi Olmert, Yediot Ahronot, 8.3.98, p. B5)

Assad is angry and worried these days. Things are happening in Lebanon, and not coordinated with him. He is even surprised at what is happening, and Assad does not like being surprised, certainly not in his backyard, Lebanon.

For years, the situation in Lebanon has been a most comfortable one for Assad. Israel is bleeding, it is incapable of dealing with the problem being presented to it by a relatively small guerrilla organization, directed mainly by Syria. Public opinion in Israel is asking tough questions, and for good reason. The rest of Lebanon is peaceful and prosperous, the Lebanese government is serving as a deputy spokesman for the Syrian government and, in short, all of the pressure is on Israel which, for its part, is doing nothing, politically or militarily.

And then along comes the defense minister, who with a political initiative changes the rules of the game. Israel's readiness to accept Security Council Resolution 425 of 3 March, 1978 puts Lebanon, Syria, Hizballah and the rest of Israel's enemies in this arena into a panic, gives Israel relative advantages in the international arena and enables its government to score points in the the eyes of Israeli public opinion.

On the face of it, Syria and its allies should be celebrating a big victory. Israel finally discovered a dusty UN resolution, announced is readiness to "pack up" from southern Lebanon, is not insisting on its previous demand to bring about Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon and did not even make its withdrawal conditional on the signing of a peace agreement between it and Lebanon.

However, Assad knows why he opposes the Israeli initiative. He fears, perhaps rightly so from his standpoint, that a withdrawal from southern Lebanon would further weaken, and perhaps even completely remove, the incentive that Israel has to enter into renewed negotiations with him on the Golan Heights. For his part, he is determined to bring about an Israeli withdrawal to the 4 June, 1967 lines. Pressure on Israel in southern Lebanon is one of the best bargaining chips he has. And he has already proved his skill as a cagey player.

All of this means that Syria will now be interested in increasing the pressure on Israel in southern Lebanon, and at the same time bringing all of its pressure to bear - - including the use of violence and terrorism -- on those elements in Lebanon that may now be entertaining the hope that Israel will finally withdraw from the security zone, so that Lebanon can assert its sovereignty over it.

Clearly, Israel's initiative cannot be acceptable, and will not be acceptable, to Syria, and the informational and diplomatic advantages that we will win with them will not alter the reality on the ground. Israel, therefore, remains with the biggest question of all: What to do with Syria, which is not even willing to let us leave Lebanon, except on its terms.

It is clear that the option of a comprehensive withdrawal from the Golan Heights does not even appear on the current government's agenda, and it is therefore worthwhile for the government to examine another option precisely at this time: The possibility of making Syria understand that we are not the only ones who have to pay a price for our continued presence in Lebanon. Why now? Because now more Lebanese understand that Israel is interested in leaving their country, and the one who is stopping the withdrawal is Syria -- this is something which may finally stir Lebanese patriots to act against Lebanon's real occupiers: The Syrians. Lebanon has already proven in the in the past -- and it can prove again in the near future -- that it is a graveyard for all of its foreign occupiers.


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