EVENTS during the past month have brought to the top of the agenda once again the subject of Israel's continued military presence in southern Lebanon.

The debate over whether Israel should unilaterally withdraw its troops from the its self-declared security zone in southern Lebanon has gained momentum, fed by stepped-up attacks by the Islamic Hizb'Allah organization, as well as February's deadly collision between two Israeli helicopters transporting troops to Lebanon. Every life lost adds weight to the withdrawal calls. Comparisons with America's embroilment in Vietnam are being drawn.

But Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his Defence Minister Yitzhak Mordechai have ruled out an unconditional, unilateral withdrawal. They do not want Hizb'Allah on Israel's border, and do not trust the regular Lebanese Army to keep the Islamic group in check.

Although the most high-profile internal calls to pull out have come from opposition politicians, positions in the debate have blurred traditional party differences. Labour leadership candidate Ehud Barak, told CNN (February 10) a unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon would be the worst possible signal to send to Hizb'Allah and its regional supporters.

The security zone was established as a buffer between an unstable Lebanon and northern Israeli towns and villages. Backed by Syria and Iran, Hizb'Allah is fighting a war of attrition against Israel and its South Lebanese Army allies in southern Lebanon, and has often launched rockets at Israeli communities across the border.

Syria has repeatedly pressured the weak Lebanese government not to accept a bilateral peace accord with Israel. Damascus wants a negotiated deal to incorporate a total Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights.

"For [Syrian President] Hafez el-Assad the indirect war waged against Israel in south Lebanon is an indispensable factor in his bid to dictate terms to Israel regarding the future of the Golan Heights and a final peace settlement,"
wrote defence analyst Daniel Leshem in The Jerusalem Post (February 7).
"A ruthless leader and brutal mafia-style politician like Assad would never give up a bargaining chip of this kind."
Even a deal such as Syria has in mind holds no guarantee that Assad would pull his 40 000 occupation troops out of Lebanon. Neither would there be any guarantee that Hizb'Allah would be satisfied with having achieved its stated goal of ridding Lebanon of the Israelis. For Hizb'Allah has made it clear that it is committed to the broader Islamic goal of "liberating Jerusalem from the Zionists".

Writing in the same edition of the Post, another commentator, Yosef Goell, suggested Israel faced three, rather than two, options:

"So far the debate has been between those who argue that we must withdraw from the zone in the hope that Hizb'Allah will not press its attacks into Israel proper, and those who argue that we must grit our teeth and stay put, while doing as much as possible to reduce our casualties.
"Overlooked is a third option ... It is high time we took a leaf out of Hafez Assad's book. While declaring our continuing commitment to seeking peace with Syria, we must make it clear that Syria's use of Hizb'Allah to press a nasty war against us in the security zone while talking peace will be reciprocated not in the zone itself, but where it hurts the most, in an extremely vulnerable Lebanon, and in Syria itself,"
Goell argued.

Added Ma'ariv in an editorial (February 10):

"Withdrawal will prove to the Syrians that Hizb'Allah shelling gets results. Whoever calls southern Lebanon 'Israel's Vietnam' should ask himself, would the Americans have withdrawn had the Vietcong stood on its borders?"

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