Withdrawal Symptoms

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Usually, when one country seizes part of another, the victim pleads for international support to end the occupation, while the aggressor strives to perpetuate the status quo. But in the bizarre drama playing out now between Israel and Lebanon, the actors have swapped scripts. While Israel seeks world backing for its planned withdrawal from south Lebanon, Lebanon is acting unenthusiastic about the liberation of its own land.

As Israel attempts to close the curtain on its 22-year presence in Lebanon, other players are acting oddly. Syria, which effectively controls Lebanon, has at one moment threatened war should Israel leave and at the next welcomed a departure. Antoine Lahad, the dapper commander of Israel's proxy militia, the South Lebanon Army, was expected to retire gracefully to France, but now says he and his men will go on fighting their fellow Lebanese if necessary, with the Israelis or without them.

The tumult is a measure that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak is being taken seriously when he says he'll pull Israeli troops out of Lebanon by July. The momentum for a unilateral withdrawal accelerated three weeks ago when a Geneva summit between President Clinton and Syrian President Hafez Assad flopped. Barak had preferred to keep the south Lebanon pullout in reserve, hoping to first secure Syria's cooperation in a withdrawal. But with the Syria talks moribund, Israel has turned its agenda to what Barak calls the "tragedy": 1,549 Israeli soldiers dead since Israel's full-scale invasion of Lebanon in 1982, followed by its creation three years later of an occupation zone in the south, in theory to protect northern Israel.

Lining up U.S. backing was a top item on Barak's agenda when he zipped briefly to Washington to meet Clinton last week. Foreign Minister David Levy is consulting with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan over the withdrawal, pledging, uncharacteristically, to "cooperate fully" with the organization.

Barak isn't so much worried about getting world support for the withdrawal as he is about keeping it through the possibly nasty aftermath. Following a pullout, Israel intends to deter its main foe, the Hizballah militia, and other enemies by retaliating for any attacks on civilian targets "very quickly and very strongly," in the words of a senior army officer. Operating from within its borders, Israel hopes to be seen no longer as an occupying bully but as a harassed country defending itself.

Though unhappy with Israel's insistence on leaving, the 2,600-strong S.L.A. was expected to pose no major obstacle. Lahad and his senior commanders were offered exile in Israel or abroad. Ordinary fighters, it was thought, would face minor prison terms in Lebanon, or would cut their own deals with Hizballah or government officials. Lahad's pledge two weeks ago to stick it out makes Israeli officials uneasy. They would hate to leave him to his fate, but they aren't prepared to hang around just to back him up.

Barak's pullout plan plainly bothers Assad. "The Israelis have outsmarted him," says an Arab diplomat close to the Syrians. A unilateral withdrawal by Israel would deprive Assad of an important instrument of pressure in his bid to have Israel also end its occupation of Syria's Golan Heights. Assad has held himself as the answer to Israel's quagmire in Lebanon: I can use my 35,000 troops in Lebanon to keep things quiet on your border, he tells Israel, if only you'll give me back the Golan Heights and get out of Lebanon. Now Assad is feeling doubly burned: no Golan Heights, and Israel doesn't give a hoot about his Lebanon card anymore. "This," says a U.S. official, "is Syria's worst nightmare."

In March, Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al Shara called Barak's pullout plan "suicide." "They should not use this as a way of pressuring us," he said. The Lebanese, out of necessity, followed suit. Defense Minister Ghazi Zuayter went so far as to suggest that after Israel left, Syria would place rockets on the Israeli border, a proposition even Damascus couldn't let stand. Even after Syria's Shara embraced the idea of an Israeli departure, Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, in a letter to Annan, argued against extending his government's authority to the south, saying that would only reward the former aggressor, Israel.

The official postures in Lebanon mask another sentiment, which is causing Assad more dyspepsia. If Israel truly leaves Lebanon, the justification for big brother Syria staying there gets flimsier. Last month, Gebran Tueni, publisher of the leading Beirut daily An-Nahar, caused an uproar by writing a front-page open letter to Bashar Assad, the son and heir-designate of Hafez, asking that Syrian troops depart Lebanon after Israel's do. "We are not a Syrian province," Tueni declared. A country that quibbles with another state for trying to end a bloody occupation should be able to find an argument to answer that one.

With reporting by Aharon Klein/Tel Aviv and Scott MacLeod/Cairo