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NEWS ANALYSIS : Peace Likely to Be on Israel's Terms : Mideast: Lebanon offensive shows Jerusalem will act if its security is threatened.

August 02, 1993|MICHAEL PARKS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — If there is to be peace in the Middle East, it will come largely on Israel's terms--that was the underlying message in the Israeli offensive last week against Iranian-backed guerrillas in southern Lebanon.

With massive firepower directed at a few thousand guerrillas, Israel demonstrated to the Arabs that, even while it is negotiating for peace, it remains ready to use its awesome military strength whenever it feels its security is threatened, and peace must thus be based on Israeli security.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin made the same point to an equally crucial audience--his own people.

The problem was not that the estimated 5,000 guerrillas of the pro-Iranian Hezbollah, or Party of God, posed a serious military threat to Israel--they did not, despite serious casualties they inflicted on Israeli troops in southern Lebanon in recent months.

But Hezbollah's intermittent rocket attacks, though wildly inaccurate, left residents of northern Israel, and the country as a whole, feeling vulnerable and as virtual hostages.

Many Israelis blamed this on Middle East peace talks and accused the Rabin government, elected on a platform of peace with security, of going soft, of pursuing peace at the expense of security.

In Israel's parliamentary elections a year ago, Rabin had won a mandate to talk peace with the country's Arab neighbors and in the bargain to return captured Arab territory that Israel now holds.

But his ability to negotiate eroded with terrorist attacks by radical groups such as Lebanon's pro-Iranian Hezbollah and Hamas, a Palestinian Islamic group.

As Israelis understand it, peace is supposed to enhance their security, not diminish it. They want to know that their country is dealing from strength, and they need to be persuaded that radicals will not violate agreements reached with the moderates.

With the seven-day campaign against Hezbollah, a marginal movement of Islamic fundamentalists, Rabin was able to demonstrate such a commitment to security.

"It's possible to speak of the removal of a very big mine in the middle of the path of the peace process," Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said Sunday.

In the aftermath of the operation, Israeli officials felt Sunday that, far more than before, they could offer fresh assurances of "peace with security."

Describing as "a very important political development" the U.S.-brokered cease-fire under which Hezbollah will not fire rockets at Israel's northern settlements, Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin argued that the informal pact would bring renewed energy to the peace negotiations.

"I am hopeful there will now be a coalition of moderates against those who want nothing but destruction and radicalism," Beilin commented, including in that coalition Syria, which had agreed to curb Hezbollah.

Beilin asserted that Syria's readiness to deal with Israel on the question of security along its northern border demonstrated that, for the first time, both Israel and the Arabs were prepared to conclude peace treaties.

Negotiations over the past 21 months in Washington had shown that there were important common denominators in their views of peace, Beilin said.

And the personal involvement of Secretary of State Warren Christopher in negotiating the latest cease-fire had enhanced the U.S. role as mediator, Beilin added.

"For the first time, all parties in the region welcome American involvement and understand that without it there will be no peace," he said. Christopher's mediation had "increased his credibility and the credibility of the U.S. in bringing about change."

The Israeli Cabinet, assessing the operation and the truce, expressed its hope that Christopher would become a "direct channel" for discussions between Rabin and Syrian President Hafez Assad during his forthcoming visit.

"The operation and its outcome created a more propitious background for the renewal of the peace talks," an upbeat Rabin told the Cabinet, according to officials who were present.

Of all the elements in this Israeli analysis, the most startling was the almost unreserved praise for Syria and Assad.

"Without Syria, it was impossible to have this arrangement," Police Minister Moshe Shahal said. "Syria has proved that when they want to, they certainly can deliver whatever they promise."

Lt. Gen. Ehud Barak, the military chief of staff, described Assad as "a statesman."

Looking toward Christopher's visit to the region this week, Israeli officials said they believe the intense negotiations he conducted over Lebanon created a momentum that can break the prolonged stalemate in the broader Arab-Israeli talks.

"Everything has been lubricated," a senior government official said of Christopher's efforts. "We have a dialogue going, and now we should turn it toward the substance of our differences."

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