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Syria Should Not Misread Israel's Withdrawal From Lebanon

Middle East: Assad may be emboldened to use violence as a pressure tactic. That would be a mistake.

May 25, 2000|YOSSI KLEIN HALEVI | Yossi Klein Halevi is a senior writer for the Jerusalem Report

JERUSALEM — Israel may be about to learn that, in the Middle East, there is no safety in weakness. The humiliating and abrupt flight from Lebanon--for which we had nearly a year to prepare since Ehud Barak was elected prime minister and announced his intention to extract the troops--has seemingly provided proof that Israel has lost its nerve. That perception will encourage those in the Arab world who believe that Israel can be pressured through violence to surrender on other fronts, rather than through negotiation and mutual compromise. The result will likely be an intensification of violence in the coming months, both in the West Bank and the Galilee.

According to Israeli military intelligence, the Syrians have begun training Palestinian bands in Lebanon for border attacks against Israel. The Syrian rationale is straightforward: If the Israeli public forced its government to withdraw from Lebanon because of Hezbollah's pressure, attacks on the Galilee may spur an Israeli protest movement to support Syrian demands over the Golan Heights.

But if Syrian President Hafez Assad believes that terrorism will achieve what negotiations could not, the Israeli public will likely disappoint him. In a rare instance of national unity, Israelis overwhelmingly supported Barak's refusal to cede part of the shoreline of the Sea of Galilee to Assad.

Despite the Lebanon fiasco, the Arab perception of a defeatist Israel is simplistic. Like other Western countries, Israel has lost its enthusiasm for military glory and is now essentially motivated by pragmatism, not by history or ideology. But the diminishing centrality of the army in the Israeli consciousness doesn't translate into a death wish. With south Lebanese refugees crowding the gates into Israel and residents of the Galilee fleeing south in fear of Katyusha rocket attacks, Israelis are in no mood to surrender to violent blackmail over the Golan.

For an Israeli watching the dismal televised images from the north, the single encouraging image that lingers is of our soldiers returning home--not bitter or ashamed but singing and waving Israeli flags. They went willingly to Lebanon to defend the Galilee; they were ready to remain as long as the country wanted them there. They did their job and have nothing to be ashamed of. That unexpected pride among soldiers in retreat bodes well for the country in the difficult weeks ahead.

Barak has repeatedly warned that he will hit Syrian targets in Lebanon if terrorists shoot into Galilee towns and kibbutzim. The right-wing opposition doubts his resolve: What will happen, demanded one Likud leader, when a home or school in Lebanon is inadvertently hit by an Israeli bomb and the terrible photographs appear on TV? Will Barak withstand world pressure and continue defending the Galilee?

He will probably have no choice. As Israel moves into final-status talks with the Palestinians, Barak will need the public's support for far-reaching compromises. That support is conceivable only if Israelis believe that the country is making peace from a position of strength. If Barak allows Syria to turn the Galilee into a war zone, he will lose what remains of his military credibility. The public will hardly trust his judgment on the West Bank when he miscalculated so badly in Lebanon.

Syria, whose army is no match for Israel, almost certainly doesn't want to provoke a wider conflict. Yet by misreading the mood in Israel, Assad may trigger a series of events that could lead to regional war. Egypt has already indicated that it will support Syria if attacked by Israel, even in retaliation for Syrian-inspired attacks on the Galilee. With Egypt behind him, Assad may be emboldened to test the limits of Israeli endurance.

Historians argue whether the late Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser really intended to go to war against Israel when, in May 1967, he replaced U.N. peacekeeping troops with the Egyptian army along the border and shut the Straits of Tiran to Israeli navigation. The answer is of interest only to historians. Assad may initiate the next phase of the Lebanon tragedy; he cannot determine how it will end.

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