Why Lebanon Retreat May Force Israel-Syria Talks

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The last Israeli out of Lebanon didn't turn off the lights, but he did lock the gate. He also symbolically opened a dangerous new chapter of Israel's troubled relations with its neighbors. The last Israelis departed before dawn Wednesday, as the collapse of their Lebanese Christian proxy army forced Prime Minister Ehud Barak to speed up the withdrawal plan. Even more worrying to the Israeli leader than the spectacle of his troops retreating under fire and Hezbollah guerrillas dancing triumphantly atop tanks abandoned by his Lebanese allies is the fact that the vacuum left by Israel has been filled by a guerrilla movement implacably hostile to the Jewish state and emboldened by what it sees as its defeat of the Israeli occupation.

In the absence of a peace deal with Syria — which Barak had hoped would rein in Hezbollah — Israel had hoped that its Lebanese allies would hold their own long enough to string a line of U.N. peacekeepers between the guerrillas and the Israeli border. But the instantaneous collapse of the South Lebanon Army has rendered that impossible, even in the unlikely event that the U.N. force, whose role in Lebanon has never been more than that of spectators, had been willing to insert itself between two armies who have reached no peace agreement. That leaves Israel's northernmost population centers vulnerable to a hostile enemy a stone's throw away — which is why thousands of Israeli civilians scurried southward rather than spend their nights in the bomb shelters of towns such as Qiryat Shmona — and Barak with no simple formula for guaranteeing their security.

Israel has warned that any attacks across the border will be answered with massive retaliation, both against Syrian and Lebanese targets inside Lebanon, a situation that highlights the danger of a new escalation of regional conflict. But if Israel retaliates with massive force, that could potentially ratchet up the conflict to dangerous levels by prompting widespread rocket attacks across the border or even drawing in Syria. However, despite its desire to prove to Barak that peace on his northern border is impossible without Syria, Damascus has no desire to be drawn into a full-blown war with its militarily stronger neighbor. So, even as the security situation on the Lebanon border becomes increasingly volatile in the coming weeks, Israel and Syria may begin feeling their way back toward the negotiating table.