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After Lebanon Withdrawal, What Now for the Main Players?

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Israelís hasty retreat from Lebanon this week stopped the music in the Mideast's high-stakes game of musical chairs, sending all the region's players scurrying to reposition themselves. While it's too early to predict winners, the strategies pursued by the different players from here on may determine the future of the Mideast for decades to come. And in true Mideastern fashion, the move that represents a dramatic step towards peace also carries new dangers of war.

ISRAEL

Stake in Lebanon:

The Jewish state's army set up home in Lebanon 22 years ago to protect its northern borders from attacks by Palestinian and later by Lebanese guerrillas. But the occupation became Israel's albatross as it lost hundreds of soldiers over the years and still failed to eliminate Hezbollah. Israel had hoped to negotiate its withdrawal as part of a wider peace agreement with Syria, which would then police southern Lebanon. But despite the breakdown of those talks, Prime Minister Ehud Barak was under strong domestic pressure to end a deeply unpopular occupation.

Objectives:

Israel's primary objective remains protecting its northernmost population centers from attacks across the Lebanese border. But the key to long-term peace on its northern flank is reaching agreement with Syria over the fate of the Golan Heights.

Options:

Having called Syria's bluff by withdrawing from Lebanon without an agreement with Damascus, Israel is now forced to find a way of preventing rocket attacks from Hezbollah or dissident Palestinian groups. It has warned that any attacks will be met with overwhelming force in the form of air strikes — and it has made very clear that it will include Syria's extensive military installations in Lebanon on the target list. But Israel's hasty retreat left a lot of weapons in the hands of local militants who're not necessarily under Hezbollah's (or any body else's) discipline. A rogue attack emanating from these elements or from some of Lebanon's 400,000 Palestinian refugees who stand to gain little from the Israeli-Palestinian peace process could trigger a massive Israeli response and draw either or both of Hezbollah and Syria into a full-blown war. While plans to get the U.N. to police the border represent a short-term solution, in the end stabilizing its Lebanon border may still require that Israel conclude a deal with Syria.


SYRIA

Stake in Lebanon:

The Syrian army has occupied Lebanon for almost as long as the Israelis have, and Damascus retains de facto military and political control over its fragile neighbor. Israel's Lebanon dilemma had for most of the past decade been a key bargaining chip in Syria's efforts to negotiate a peace agreement involving Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights. Israel's unilateral retreat from Lebanon has now deprived Damascus of that leverage, calling Syria's bluff. Moreover, it's beginning to raise the question among Lebanese of what purpose is served by Syria's presence, which has been presented as a defense against Israel.

Objectives:

Syria's immediate goal will be to maintain its influence over events in Lebanon, and to continue to press Israel to meet Syrian terms for a peace agreement.

Options:

Israel's withdrawal creates a strategic dilemma for Syria's President Hafez Assad. He had warned Israel that leaving Lebanon without a Syrian security guarantee would leave the Jewish state dangerously exposed; now he has to consider whether to allow or encourage further attacks on Israel or to keep the peace. While it doesnít directly control Hezbollah, Syria tolerates and at times encourages the guerrillas' actions against Israel, and also acknowledges it has the power to stop them. While Assad will be tempted to allow a period of instability along the border to underscore Syriaís indispensability to Israel's security, the danger is that Israeli retaliation against Syrian targets could force both countries into a war neither wants. And the reason Assad had sued for peace in the first place is that the collapse of the Soviet Union has seen Syriaís military capability steadily declining, while remaining on the sidelines of Washington's Mideast peace game has left its economy isolated and stagnant. Long-term self-interest dictates that Syria must, eventually, make peace with Israel.


LEBANESE GOVERNMENT

Stake in Lebanon:

Lebanon's politicians and citizens would very much like to reclaim their country from the two neighborhood bullies who've controlled it for two decades — even if only to continue fighting over it among themselves.

Objectives:

Rebuild — on a more solid foundation of national unity — the Lebanese state that collapsed in the late '70s in a bitter civil war between Christians and Muslims that tore it apart, turning it into an Israeli-Palestinian battleground and ultimately saw the country carved into Syrian and Israeli zones of control.

Options:

Having probably the weakest army in their own country, the Lebanese government has few independent options. Instead, it's bound to follow the Syrian line of refusing to negotiate a peace deal with Israel before the Israeli-Syrian conflict is resolved. But Israel and the international community are looking to Lebanon to either police its border zone or allow the U.N. to do so despite Beirut's refusal — under Syrian pressure — to guarantee Israel's security. Although the fractious religious and political divisions that tore the country apart in the '70s have not disappeared, leaders on all sides appear determined to avoid any repeat of the disastrous civil war.


HEZBOLLAH

Stake in Lebanon:

The Iran-backed guerrilla movement whose war of attrition forced Israel to leave Lebanon is the big winner in the new situation, enjoying acclaim throughout their own country and the wider Arab world as the first Arab army ever to drive Israel from Arab territory. Having won the battle for which it was created in the early '80s, the Shiite guerrilla movement now has to find a new purpose.

Objectives:

Besides pressing for Israel to withdraw from all Lebanese territories (including some that Israel regards as part of Syria), Hezbollah is nominally committed to pursue and support a wider 'jihad' against Israel. But its role in liberating south Lebanon has also positioned it to claim an important share of political power in Beirut.

Options:

Despite its rhetoric and ideological commitment to the destruction of Israel, Hezbollah has effectively policed the border itself in the days following the Israeli withdrawal, preventing its supporters from attacking either Israel or Lebanese Christian communities. The movementís desire to project itself as a responsible authority in Lebanon was underlined by the fact that it handed over members of Israel's proxy army to the Lebanese Army, rather than seek summary justice as many had feared. While its ideological orientation may suggest that Hezbollah would be tempted to fight on against the Israelis even though they've withdrawn, a number of factors militate against this: unlike in the south Lebanon occupation zone, fighting the Israelis on home ground is a suicide mission; provoking Israeli retribution after the withdrawal carries the danger of turning the Lebanese population against Hezbollah, and Syria is unlikely to tolerate actions that threaten to draw it into a war. That may leave Hezbollah more inclined to reap their political rewards of their victory in Beirut than to keep slinging rockets into northern Israel.


PALESTINIAN AUTHORITY

Stake in Lebanon:

Although some 400,000 Palestinians remain in Lebanon, a number of them armed, the PLO was driven out by the Israeli capture of Beirut in 1982. So Yasser Arafatís Palestinian Authority has no direct stake in Lebanon, but developments there could impact on his peace process with Israel.

Objectives:

A Palestinian state with more land, a piece of Jerusalem and a better deal for refugees than the Israelis are currently offering.

Options:

Arafat has no influence over events in Lebanon, but those events may add unwelcome constraints to his negotiating strategy. The perception that Hezbollah forced Israel to back down by force of arms makes it more difficult for Arafat to sell his own supporters on the dramatic concessions heíll have to make as part of any agreement with the Israelis. Hezbollah isnít making it easier as its leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, proclaims his movementís victory is a lesson to the Palestinians to end negotiations with Israel and return to arms. And, of course, the more the Lebanon situation occupies minds in Jerusalem and Washington, the less attention the Palestinian question is likely to receive.

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