Back to battle stations

Back to battle stations

David Makovsky

It was only last month that top Israeli and Syrian officials strolled across a bridge in Shepherdstown, W.Va., to symbolize hopes for peace. But last week that seemed a dim memory as the Middle East was gripped by another all-too-familiar spasm of violence. Israelis in northern border towns hunkered down in dank bomb shelters in fear of rocket attacks while Lebanese did without electricity after Israeli air raids. Israel’s retaliation followed deadly attacks by Hezbollah guerrillas in southern Lebanon. In all, seven Israeli soldiers were killed and some 15 Lebanese wounded.

The bloodshed fueled skepticism over whether Israel and Syria would be able to resolve their differences through U.S.- sponsored talks. “Lebanon has made the task much more difficult,” says a senior Clinton administration official. Syria dominates Lebanon with 35,000 troops there and allows weapons for the Iranian-backed Hez- bollah guerrillas to move through Damascus airport. What kind of peace process, Israelis were asking last week, has Syria encouraging or acquiescing in the killing of Israeli troops? Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak had wanted to avoid escalation in hopes of not further upsetting stalled peace talks with Damascus. But domestic pressure, aides say, led him to order strikes on Hezbollah strongholds and three Lebanese power stations.

Pullout. Hezbollah is fighting to expel Israeli troops from a 9- mile-wide security belt in southern Lebanon established in 1985 to prevent cross-border infiltration. And Israel would like to leave. Barak has pledged to withdraw by July, preferably in agreement with Syria. But the televised images of bloodied Israeli soldiers last week intensified calls for a more rapid and unilateral pullout. Said an Israeli soldier: “What’s the point of staying?”

The Lebanon attacks put not only the Israeli military but Barak himself on the defensive. The most decorated soldier in Israel’s history and a nimble mind, Barak has prided himself on staying in control of events. He won a landslide election last May, inspiring Israelis with ambitious peace deadlines on both the Syrian and Palestinian tracks. Now things look less promising. Amid the Lebanese strife, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat froze peace talks with Israel. The Palestinians feel that Barak has relegated them to second-class status below that of Syria, not worthy of major concessions. The two sides are nowhere near completing the interim framework agreement Barak wanted to conclude by February 13.

As if all that weren’t enough, Barak is under fire at home as well. His Mr. Clean image has been sullied by a campaign-finance scandal that has implicated his aides in soliciting illegal foreign contributions. Israel’s state comptroller says it is unreasonable to believe that Barak was not aware of the improprieties. Barak, peace supporters fear, may have lost some of the political capital needed to sell Israelis on deals with both Syria and the Palestinians.

The wisdom of Barak’s campaign pledge to get the Israeli Army out of Lebanon by July, regardless of whether he can come to terms with the Syrians, is also under scrutiny. While some believe that his declaration scared Damascus into starting talks in December, the prospect worries Barak’s former colleagues in the Israeli security establishment. Defense officials say they prefer negotiated security arrangements in Lebanon to a unilateral pullout, which would leave a vacuum that could be filled by Hezbollah. Yet most of Barak’s cabinet is now said to be souring on talks with Damascus. Officials increasingly wonder whether the Syrians–who refused even to shake hands with Barak during peace talks–might not be ready for peacemaking.

Then there is the question of what Syrian President Hafez Assad is up to. U.S. officials tell U.S. News that both the quality and quantity of weaponry going to Hezbollah through Damascus and Lebanese seaports have grown over the past two months. Damascus is permitting Iran to ship TOW antiarmor missiles to Hezbollah. Iran, which opposes the peace process, has been urging the guerrillas to accelerate attacks on Israeli forces, a U.S. official says. Some aides to Barak suggest that Assad believes the way to wrest concessions is by use of Hezbollah violence, but they say this will not work. “This seems like a message from Syria, but it is a bad message,” says one adviser.

It also remains unclear whether Assad, 69, is sulking or just not feeling well. The Syrians were stung by the publication in an Israeli newspaper of the outlines of a would-be peace treaty. The U.S.-drafted document was seen in the Arab world as evidence that Syria was making big concessions and getting little in return. In recent weeks Assad has refused to see Western emissaries who had been welcome as go-betweens. Still, U.S. officials say Secretary of State Madeleine Albright will probably visit the region soon in hopes of recharging the drive for peace.

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