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Treating Enemies As Suitors

March 12, 2000|Amy Wilentz | Amy Wilentz, who lived in Jerusalem for four years, has written about the Middle East for the New Yorker. She is working on a book about Jerusalem

NEW YORK — The Israelis are finally learning how to stop being a target.

They've had some tough teachers. The Palestinians took aim at the closest Israelis during the intifada: the soldiers who manned the checkpoints and patrolled the occupied territories. The Syrians have also shot their arrows--using Hezbollah as a bow in the part of Lebanon the Israelis call the security zone--ambushing convoys and blowing up Israeli soldiers and generals with roadside bombs. If you are the hated enemy and you're sitting right there, you make it too easy.

The lesson is this: Don't hang around waiting to be shot at. Then, no one can shoot you. It's a military lesson, but it's also a diplomatic lesson and--hardest for the Israelis, who, for historical reasons, prefer action and reaction--a philosophical lesson.

It's how the Israelis, after a long tutorial in the vanity of reprisal, solved their intifada problem: They pulled out, and the kids with rocks had no one to throw them at anymore. That's also how they want to solve their Syrian-Lebanese problem: walk away. Last week, the Israeli cabinet unanimously adopted a resolution pledging to leave Lebanon unilaterally by July if a diplomatic solution is not reached with Syria by then.

You'd think the Syrians would welcome the news. Normally, people in a fight feel they've won if the other guy turns tail and walks away. Countries waging bloody wars normally are happy if those wars end. Well, welcome to the Middle East, where everything has one more dimension than is physically possible in the actual world. It so happens that the Syrians are quite angry at the Israelis over their announced plans to depart and have called the move a duplicitous pressure tactic.

They're right. Welcome to the Middle East, where everyone involved understands his partners' and rivals' complicated motivations far better than you'd imagine, given how much hatred and mistrust is involved in both relationships there.

By announcing a July pullout date, the Israelis have taken away Hezbollah's usefulness as a bargaining chip in negotiations for an overall peace between Israel and Syria. Using Hezbollah, Syria has been able to put pressure on Israel at will, simply by turning up the heat in southern Lebanon. (Lebanon is under military occupation by Syria.) The level of violence in southern Lebanon has been the barometer of relations between Israel and Syria.

The main issue here is one that no one is mentioning: the fate of the Golan Heights, the treasured piece of real estate Israel took from Syria in the 1967 war. Deserted Syrian bunkers dot the roads that wind over the Heights' grassy plain, now home to more than 17,000 Israelis. Bumper stickers in Israel read: "The Country = The Golan."

Syrian President Hafez Assad has used Hezbollah attacks on Israeli forces in the zone to convince Israel that the return of the Golan to Syria will have to be a part of any meaningful peace package. But if the Israelis leave, and Hezbollah has no one to shoot at, the guerrilla force is effectively disarmed, unless Assad is actually willing to draw Israel into a war over the Golan, which he has seemed understandably disinclined to do.

In negotiating with Syria, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak is caught between two conflicting emotions among his countrymen and countrywomen. Mothers and fathers and future and current soldiers are almost unanimous in wanting Israel out of Lebanon. They see Israel's involvement there as a fruitless, even existential, action, one that has cost too many lives (20 to 30 soldiers a year), given its lack of moral or nationalist value. (Israelis don't mind sacrificing, but it has to be for a viscerally good reason.) Lebanon, it has been said, is Israel's Vietnam.

On the other hand, most Israelis would like to retain hold of the Golan. Psychologically, once the Israelis have a piece of land in their grasp, they hate to let it go. They fear, not irrationally, that any giveback is tantamount to a betrayal of nationhood, since Israel itself is land only recently taken. Emotionally, the reasoning goes like this: Give back Gaza, give back the West Bank, give back the Golan, and you might as well be giving back Haifa, and Jaffa, and Nazareth and Ashkelon. Israelis cannot allow any conciliation, any compromise, to go too far. The territory they're on is already shaky.

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