Courage under Fire

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Ehud Barak, the Israeli prime minister, doesn't care much about how things look. The tanks he supervised as an army officer were among the military's dustiest. The suits he wears as a civilian are unmodish and occasionally ill fitting. Points of ceremony do not rate with him. He refused to take umbrage when the Syrians sent merely their Foreign Minister to a peace summit with him last December or to be insulted when his negotiating partner would not shake his hand.

Given his disregard for appearances, the Israeli leader was not especially bothered by the undecorous images produced last week by Israel's hastier-than-planned withdrawal from southern Lebanon. humiliation! cried a newspaper as the retreating Israeli army blew up its outposts and let weapons and ammunition slip into the hands of the Lebanese militia Hizballah. In the midst of the muddle, Barak was a picture of equanimity. Addressing reporters after the pullout, he appeared buoyant. "I like criticism," he said, as he flashed a bit of his trademark thin-lipped smile. "It keeps our adrenaline up."

The idea of an adrenaline junkie in the commander's chair was understandably nervous-making in the volatile Middle East. In Washington there were worries that Hizballah or Palestinian extremists might jeopardize the peace process by provoking Barak to retaliate. At the United Nations which now has to police the Lebanese peace there was some alarm that Barak had moved unilaterally, but that was followed by cautious optimism. The move was textbook Barak: surprising (his last name means "lightning" in Hebrew), courageous and smart.

However unseemly, the withdrawal was the end of a costly, arguably pointless 18-year occupation that cut short the lives of hundreds of Israeli soldiers, mostly young conscripts. It was the erasure of a long-standing blot on Israel's international credibility. And it was the fulfilment of an election promise so radical and attractive that most voters, for or against Barak, had originally written it off as mere gimmickry. "The tragedy," Barak declared, "has come to an end."

His generals were not so sure. Asked by Time whether the Lebanon affair was over, military chief of staff Lieut. General Shaul Mofaz snapped back, "What are you talking about, 'over'? It's a new situation, and we have to see what will be." Israel's army brass have not hidden their disapproval of the pullout. Their fear is that while Israel has quit the fight in Lebanon, Hizballah and its Syrian backers have not.

Barak hopes his threats of massive retaliation will prevent such a development. Still, uncertainty about the other side's response made the pullout a risky move, for both Israel's security and Barak's political longevity. "The decision to leave was very much Barak's," says a government official, "and it was taken in the face of a lot of hedging by others. The consequences, good or bad, will also be uniquely Barak's."

Barak is notorious for marching alone. Possessed of a preternatural certitude, he cares little what others think. Faced with challenges and doubts, he constantly counsels, "Wait, wait, you will see." It's a trait that drives rival politicians and the professional complainers of the Israeli media batty, in part because they suspect he is right. Last week he certainly delivered, bringing 1,000 Israeli soldiers home from Lebanon under messy conditions but without a single casualty. By midweek, humiliation! headlines had turned to kisses: mama, we're home! One poll indicated that 75% of the public supported Barak's move.

The war Barak was attempting to end never had a name. It was a spin-off of the Lebanon war, which began in 1982, when Israel pierced Lebanon in a desperate and mostly successful attempt to evict the Palestine Liberation Organization and to replace Syria's hegemony with its own, a goal that was not realized. By 1985 the Israelis had withdrawn from all but a tiny strip of southern Lebanon, where they remained in an effort to prevent cross-border raids. Assisting Israel in the 328-sq.-mi. Security Zone, as it was called, was the South Lebanon Army (S.L.A.), a collection of local Lebanese under mostly Christian commanders who were equipped, trained and financed by Israel. Together with Israeli army troops, they fought remnants of the mostly dispersed P.L.O., the Lebanese Shi'ite militia Amal and the radical Shi'ite Islamist group Hizballah, formed in 1982 in opposition to Israel's continuing presence in Lebanon.

Hizballah particularly haunted the Israelis. Therein lay the absurdity of the War with No Name. Israel stayed in south Lebanon so it could fight Hizballah; Hizballah fought Israel because it stayed in south Lebanon. The logic of Israel's leaving might have been obvious, but somehow the generals and politicians chose to stay on and on. It became a war of inertia.

As Israeli casualties mounted, mothers and fathers grew sick of sending their boys to the northern battlefields. Some 1,550 Israeli soldiers died in the Lebanon fighting. And Hizballah made the Security Zone largely useless by lobbing Katyusha rockets over the buffer area into Israel. Then, in last year's election, came Barak, a man constitutionally averse to conventional thinking.

In any event, Israel did not choose the timing of the withdrawal. As preparations began, the S.L.A. crumbled. Faced with prison terms and death sentences from Lebanese authorities and possibly more gruesome fates at the hands of Hizballah S.L.A. soldiers started heading for the exit.

The collapse began on Sunday, a week after Israel withdrew from its first major base, handing it over to the S.L.A. Hizballah sent hundreds of villagers swarming toward the post, which the S.L.A. quickly abandoned. Over the next 48 hours, the S.L.A. fell apart. With large areas of the Security Zone in Hizballah's hands, it became dangerous for Israel to keep troops in the pockets they still held. Late Tuesday night the order was given for the last of Israel's soldiers to leave. Members of one unit had to run six miles to reach the convoy sent to evacuate them.

The propaganda triumph for Hizballah was undeniable. The militia had stared down the strongest army in the Middle East. Israel's departure sparked a nationwide celebration in Lebanon. Hizballah was the party's hero. "A historic victory," said Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, "which we hope marks the beginning of a new era of stability." As costly as the war was to Israel, it was much more painful to the Lebanese. Since the Security Zone was created in 1985, more than a thousand Lebanese have died in the bloodshed.

The challenge on the border now is to keep the peace. Will Hizballah use the withdrawal as a chance to settle scores, to attack Israel? Last week the answer was no. In one incident, Hizballah fighters prevented enthusiastic supporters from starting trouble. At a border crossing, motorcycle-riding teenagers taunted Israeli guards by roaring down the access road at full speed, then braking just before the gates until Hizballah commanders discreetly directed the teens to ride elsewhere. Hizballah's 700 fighters are not being decommissioned. The organization says it will continue to fight while prisoners are held in Israel and Israel continues to hold a small piece of land near the Golan Heights called the Shebaa Farm.

For these reasons, and perhaps because of institutional pessimism, Israeli military officials expect fighting to resume. "It's not a matter of if. It's a matter of when," says a senior intelligence officer. Residents of northern Israel are petrified by the prospect. With Hizballah now right against the border, its fighters can easily fire into Israeli towns. Border infiltrations are another risk. Emblazoned in the collective memory of Misgav Am, a kibbutz that juts like a polyp into Lebanese territory, is the night in 1980 when Palestinian terrorists slipped across the border and took over the communal dormitory where local children slept, shooting to death the village secretary as well as a soldier and crushing the head of a weepy two-year-old boy. "Hizballah is responsible for our future now," says the current secretary, Hanan Rubinski. "We're waiting for them to decide."

Barak's natural toughness is supposed to be the antidote to that kind of violence. In recent days, for the first time, he has said explicitly that if Israel is attacked again, it will aim its retribution at Lebanese troops and at Lebanese-based Syrian forces, targets the Israelis have assiduously avoided. Barak asserted to Time that those working to mobilize Hizballah fighters and Palestinian extremists include "Syrian generals and not only generals," an apparent reference to Syrian intelligence agents in Lebanon who presumably would now fall within Israel's sights.

With the U.N. expected to certify this week that Israel's withdrawal is total, Barak hopes any future reprisals will be seen as self-defense rather than the bullying tactics of an occupier. By quitting Lebanon, he meant to add right to Israel's might.

With reporting by James L. Graff/Beirut, Christopher Hack/Beirut, Aharon Klein/Metulla, and Scott MacLeod/Tehran