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Why An Israeli Withdrawal from Southern Lebanon Means War

by Adam Garfinkle

Israel’s recent proposals regarding withdrawal from its so-called security zone in southern Lebanon have attracted oddly varying comments. Some, citing rumors of secret meetings and French mediation, are optimistic over a breakthrough. But many, inside the Arab world and out, regard the proposal — formally broached on March 1 and accepted by the cabinet on April 1 — as merely a means of deflecting attention from the stalemate in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Others complain that by accepting UN resolution 425 of 19 March 1978 — the heart of the shift in Israeli policy — Israel wants to attach conditions not written into that resolution.

The optimism is unwarranted, the accusations of insincerity are wrong, and complaints about soiling UNSCR 425 entirely miss the point. But equally problematic is any Israeli approach that assumes that through diplomacy alone it can solve its Lebanese morass. It can’t.

Israel has every reason to want to leave southern Lebanon. Retaining the security zone has gotten increasingly dangerous and politically corrosive as Hizballah, with Iranian and Syrian backing, has exacted an increasing stream of Israeli casualties. But Israel, under both Labor and Likud governments, has been reluctant to budge for fear that a withdrawal would only bring Hizballah’s rockets, mortars, and snipers within range of Israel’s civilian population in the northern Galilee. Hence, both Labor and Likud governments have attempted to negotiate Israel’s departure in a way that would protect against such a development, to no avail.

There have been important differences in the Labor and Likud approaches, these predicated on their different readings of the ultimate power in Lebanon: Syrian President Hafez al-Asad.Labor

    • insisted on negotiating “prior understandings” with Syria: a probation period of about eighteen months between the calming of the border and an Israeli withdrawal; proof that the Lebanese army was capable of handling Hizballah; and a link between its withdrawal and formalization of its relationship with Lebanon. First the Rabin and then the Peres government sought these conditions in the context of an overall deal with Syria on the Golan Heights (which they also pursued in it own right and for its own merit). Even though a settlement in Lebanon would have bolstered the power of the Lebanese government at Syria’s expense, the idea was that if Syria got most of what it wanted “at the margin” of negotiation with respect to Golan, Israel would get most of what it wanted with respect to southern Lebanon. But Asad didn’t bite.


    deeply pessimistic, and very unenthusiastic about any deal over Golan, instead designed a negotiating strategy that reversed the valences of the Labor government’s proposals. Called “Lebanon-first” and introduced as the Netanyahu government’s first diplomatic foray in June 1996, Israel no longer demanded a probation period or a link between an Israeli withdrawal and a formalization of Israeli-Lebanese relations. It also agreed that the Lebanese military would not be ultimately responsible for controlling Hizballah — the Syrian military in Lebanon would. This meant that Israel was prepared, in essence, to enable Syria to achieve the end of the Israeli security zone in Lebanon without having to reduce its own power there. Israel, in effect, acquiesced in an essentially permanent Syrian suzerainty over Lebanon.

Likud’s proposal must have been more appealing to President Asad than that put forth by Labor. Among other things, it represented a major vindication of Syria’s having backed Hizballah all these years. But Asad again did not bite, leading the prime minister to complain:

I find myself in a Kafkaesque situation. . . in which the Israeli prime minister announces that he wants to leave the territory of an Arab country, Lebanon, and the Syrian government, and with it the Lebanese government, opposes such a withdrawal. In the Middle East there have been a lot of strange things, but I have never seen anything as strange as this….

Yet the reasons for Syrian reticence are not obscure, as the Likud’s own analysis of Syrian motives suggests. Most Likud analysts believe, correctly, that Syria is not interested in a land-for-peace bargain with Israel unless it can be effected entirely on Syrian terms. If it were otherwise, Damascus would have seized upon the generous offer proffered by the last Labor government. Rather, its main concern is regime stability, and within it Alawi continuity in power — aims that peace and normalization with Israel would put at risk.

If this is true, then the common view that Syria has made southern Lebanon a hostage to its Golan diplomacy — i.e., that Syria will not “give” in the security zone unless Israel “gives” on Golan — is wrong. If Syria is not prepared in practical terms to accept peace in receipt for Golan, then the whole presumed structure of mutual incentives inherent in this view collapses in a heap.

Rather, Syria sees Lebanon, among other things, as one of the few levers it has to influence Israel; nor since 1982 has President Asad paid much of a price for using it. When it has served Syrian interests to make trouble for an Israeli government, or to make a “statement” with respect to improvements in the Israeli-Palestinian or the Israeli-Jordanian relationship, the use of violence in southern Lebanon has actually been better than free. This is because all of Israel’s military responses in Lebanon have targeted only Lebanese and twice fomented major refugee crises, which have only worked to strengthen Syria’s hand. Israel’s tactics have weakened the Lebanese government and driven it to Damascus for help, and these same tactics have occasionally generated crises of sufficient gravity to bring the U.S. secretary of state to Damascus, thereby bolstering Syrian prestige and overall leverage.

Even more important, while it might be thought that Syria wishes to erase Israel’s presence in southern Lebanon, in fact Syria benefits from Israel’s predicament there. Helping Hizballah is a means to maintain a useful relationship with Iran, which promotes Syrian interests vis-a-vis its conflicts with Iraq, Turkey, and the Kurds. Israel’s presence also weakens those forces in Lebanese politics most desirous of and best able to limit Syrian influence in the long run. And most obviously, if Israel leaves Lebanese soil, the bedrock justification for Syria’s military presence there leaves with it (not that Asad will be moved to withdraw Syrian forces on that basis alone, unfortunately).

There are also regime maintenance benefits to Syria from the current situation. Asad has no particular need to control southern Lebanon and Hizballah directly, and is leery of the cost of doing so. Indeed, he seems prepared to let his officer corps use its position in Lebanon to make money, because this keeps them supportive of the regime. Asad is willing to do this even at the cost of hollowing out the military capabilities of those forces; after all, no army engaged in smuggling drugs and guns, real estate speculation, and running protection rackets can fight effectively. Syrian armed forces, some 35,000 strong in Lebanon, could still take on Hizballah and win, but doing so would relieve Israel of a discomfort that is useful to Syria and disturb many corrupt but comfortable relationships with definite political uses for the Syrian leadership.

This is, in sum, why neither Labor nor Likud negotiating approaches to solving Israel’s Lebanon problem has worked.

  • Missing from Labor’s strategy of negotiated withdrawal was realism with respect to Syrian motives.
  • Missing from the Likud’s is a big stick to accompany its carrots.

The simple truth is that nothing any Israeli government does on this negotiating front will work as long as Syria’s pain quotient remains comfortably low. Israel will never be able to parlay away its difficulties in southern Lebanon without credibly threatening to increase Syria’s.

Israel’s real choices, then, are as obvious as they are maddening: tolerate the awful status quo; violently reshape Syria’s incentives to negotiate; or risk withdrawal without prior conditions. But since the status quo has become increasingly intolerable and there is no pretext for — and much danger in — bashing the Syrians, Israel for the very first time has begun in recent months to seriously consider unilateral withdrawal. The current diplomacy should be read, therefore, as a last ditch diplomatic effort to negotiate a withdrawal, which explains why Israel has attached conditions to its proposals: It is trying to turn an otherwise one-sided, sterile UN resolution into a template for an actual negotiation. It is either that, or it is an effort to gain the moral high ground in Washington if, after a unilateral withdrawal, a new round of violence begins.

If this diplomatic effort does not work, a unilateral Israeli withdrawal is likely. It is now strongly supported by both Ariel Sharon inside the cabinet and Yossi Beilin outside of it, not to speak of dozens of prominent politicians in between the two poles that these men represent. Meanwhile, the supporters of both the status quo and a futile diplomacy are presiding, in effect, over mounting casualties with no new ideas about how to stop the pile-up.

But unilateral withdrawal entails a huge risk, not just in security terms but also in political ones. Such a withdrawal would doubtless be accompanied by public and private warnings that any attempt by Hizballah to take advantage of the new situation to imperil Israeli civilians will be met by the sharpest retaliation. These warnings will not be bluffs either, and they will bring into being a truly dangerous situation.

It will be dangerous because Hizballah has acquired hundreds if not thousands of Iranian missiles with a range of 40 km that can strike as far away from their launch points as Acre and Safed, putting over two hundred thousand Israeli civilians within missile range. Some reports also claim that Hizballah has received Stinger anti-aircraft missiles from Iran and, clearly, a few dozen Stingers in the hands of trained operators could sharply increase Israel’s costs in southern Lebanon.

Hizballah might not take the battle south following an Israeli withdrawal. That would tee good, but when Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah was asked in early March if Hizballah would desist from attacking Israel following a withdrawal, he refused to answer. The prospects for peace and quiet are poor, particularly since Hizballah, like Hamas, has an ideological incentive in destroying the peace process through the polarization of emotions that violence always brings.

In short, if the current diplomacy fails, the most likely chain of events will be a unilateral Israeli withdrawal, followed by Hizballah provocations, followed in turn by massive Israeli air and commando attacks on Hizballah in Lebanon, both in the south and in the Beirut area as well. That would probably bigger rocket attacks on Israel far deeper into its territory than ever before. If these exchanges get out of hand — or if Israeli planes are lost to Stinger rockets — a sizable Israeli incursion into Lebanon might follow, and with it a war with Syria involving missiles of still greater ranges falling onto Israeli population centers.

The human toll of such an escalation could be horrible on all sides, but the political fallout might be worse. Israel would win the war, but under current circumstances might risk shutting off what is left of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and fuming on a new intifadah. It could seriously strain Israel’s relations with Egypt and Jordan, as well — not to speak of those with the Clinton administration.

If indeed it is only after a unilateral withdrawal from southern Lebanon that Israel’s stick comes into play to increase Syria’s pain threshold, then there will be a chance to establish a new equipoise on Israel’s northern border after the dust settles. But achieving that aim is uncertain and the price could be very high, particularly for those on all sides who hope for a broadening and deepening of Arab-lsraeli peace. Nevertheless, out of deep frustration at the continuing loss of life in southern Lebanon, Israeli politicians appear headed toward just such a high stakes gamble. The Syrians and their Lebanese satraps could save themselves a lot of trouble if they would take current Israel proposals seriously. It may be the last chance they will get before an already bloody situation gets even bloodier.

Republished by permission of Foreign Policy Research Institute, 1528 Walnut Street, Suite 610, Philadelphia, PA 19102-3684. E-mail:

Read Curtis F. Jones, “Trying to Stop the Clock”


[Author Adam Garfinkle]


© Copyright 1998 by Adam Garfinkle. All rights reserved.


Adam Garfinkle is Senior Fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute. His latest book is Politics and Society in Modem Israel: Myths and Realities (M.E. Sharpe, 1997).
For another perspective on current Middle East issues, be sure to read Curtis Jones’ “Trying to Stop the Clock.”

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