|Vol. 1 No. 10|| |
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's declared intention to withdraw Israeli military forces from south Lebanon by July 2000 has sparked considerable debate in Israel in light of the lethargic pace of the Syrian track of the peace process. Senior Israeli officials have made it abundantly clear that reaching a prior understanding with Syria, the final arbiter of armed activities by Hezbollah, before pulling out of the security zone is a top priority. They are equally adamant, however, that the evacuation of IDF forces from Lebanon will happen on schedule even in the absence of an agreement with Damascus. "If there is no agreement, we will not be held hostage to the stubbornness of others," said Foreign Minister David Levy earlier this month.1
Critics of Barak have charged that an unconditional withdrawal of Israeli forces next year will endanger the security of northern Israel and abandon the Jewish state's militia allies in south Lebanon. Neither may be the case. Israeli military planners are working on several different withdrawal options that will be studied by Barak and a special interministerial committee in the weeks ahead.
This involves a withdrawal of the estimated 1,000 Israeli soldiers occupying the 850 square km security zone, after which the IDF will rely on fortified outposts in northern Israel and an aggressive tit-for-tat retaliatory policy to deter infiltration across the border. "The Israeli army has to be prepared not only for the defense of the towns in the north but also for responding, inside Lebanon, if hostile activities from Lebanese territory are directed at Israeli territory," said ex-army chief of staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, now a minister in Barak's government.
The February Surprise
Some in the Barak administration evidently feel that a sudden withdrawal ahead of schedule may be advantageous. One recent press report cited a "very senior political source" as saying that the withdrawal of IDF units from south Lebanon may occur as early as February of next year. "In the absence of negotiations with Syria, it would be stupid to sit and wait for the [July 2000] target date, when in the meantime soldiers are falling in vain," said the source.2 An early, unexpected withdrawal would probably destabilize the domestic political situation in Lebanon, which would work to Syria's disadvantage.
Withdrawal and Transfer of Security Zone to Expanded SLA
It recently emerged that the Israeli military is developing a contingency plan to evacuate south Lebanon and transfer control over the "security zone" to the South Lebanon Army (SLA) militia in the event that a deal with Syria fails to materialize over the next nine months.
The plan was set forth by the Israeli Army's Liaison Unit in a three-part report detailing the logistical parameters of such a withdrawal. The first section proposes to step up recruitment to increase the size of the militia (which currently stands at about 2,500 soldiers), supply it with new superior weaponry, build new SLA outposts and fortify existing ones. In addition, the civilian budget for the area would be increased. The remainder of the report is addresses the redeployment of IDF forces to outposts along the border with Lebanon and its impact upon the security of northern Israeli settlements.
Although the report is officially still under consideration by Israeli Chief of Staff Gen. Shaul Mofaz, there are indications that some aspects of the plan may already be underway. Sources in south Lebanon report that frontline SLA outposts are already being significantly reinforced and that the construction of a new SLA outpost is planned in the Rihan area.
1 "Levy: Secret Channel Open with Syria," The Jerusalem Post, 3 October 1999.
2 Ma'ariv, 11 October 1999.