Israel Finds That Leaving Lebanon Isn't Easy

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The spectacle of rockets raining down on northern Israel has got to have Hafez Assad grinning — if he's able to, since a British newspaper reported over the weekend that the Syrian president recently suffered an incapacitating stroke. But Assad certainly has reason to smile, because the latest exchange of fire between the Jewish state and the Hezbollah guerrilla fighters just across the border casts a shadow over Israel's plan to complete its withdrawal from Lebanon without first concluding a land-for-peace deal with Syria. Hezbollah fired Katyushka rockets into the town of Shlomi on Friday, killing one soldier, following Israel's overnight strike on Lebanese power plants. The Israeli raid followed Thursday's rocket attack on Kiryat Shmona — in which another soldier was killed — which came in retaliation for Israeli artillery attacks earlier in the week in southern Lebanon.

The backdrop for the latest exchange is the breakdown of peace talks between Israel and Syria over Israel's refusal to accept Assad's demand of total Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, which Israel took control of during the 1967 war. Syria's primary leverage in dealing with Israel in recent years has been its ability to guarantee security in Lebanon, which is subject to de facto Syrian military control, and allow Israel to end an occupation that's deeply unpopular with the Israeli electorate. But when talks broke down over the Golan issue, Prime Minister Ehud Barak decided to call Syria's bluff by unilaterally withdrawing from a war that was costing Israeli lives with little security benefit. That suited Hezbollah, which would with some justification claim to be the first army ever to have driven Israel from Arab territory. Instead of being reined in by the heavy hand of Damascus, the guerrilla movement found itself at liberty to step up attacks to reinforce its claim to the mantle of Lebanon's liberators. In the unilateral withdrawal scenario, Israel's only defense against rocket attacks on its northern population centers is the promise that retaliation would be swift and brutal. But Thursday's air strikes, designed to disable Lebanon's infrastructure, didn't deter Hezbollah from hitting back Friday, underlining the impression that without the Syrians imposing order, unilateral withdrawal may not end the conflict on Israel's northern border.