Editorial from THE JERUSALEM POST of APRIL 28 1996


IT is hardly surprising that Prime Minister Shimon Peres and US Secretary of State Warren Christopher have proclaimed victory after obtaining an agreement with Syria for a partial cease-fire on the Lebanon border. Operation Grapes of Wrath was not a picnic. For 16 days Israel pounded Lebanon with artillery and air power, causing 160 fatalities, mostly civilian. More than 20,000 Israelis and 200,000 Lebanese have had to leave their homes and seek shelter. In Israel, 1,450 homes and several plants and installations have been hit. The damage in Lebanon has not yet been assessed, but it surely runs into billions.

To end it all without declaring that the results are satisfactory is to admit that the operation - and the often humiliating diplomatic pilgrimages to Damascus by Christopher and other foreign ministers -have been in vain. The only positive aspect of Grapes of Wrath is that it has caused no Israeli deaths and that of the 60 who were wounded, only two suffered serious injury. But the tragedy in Kana, where 100 Lebanese civilians were killed as a result of an artillery error, has caused untold damage to Israel's image and undoubtedly intensified the hatred of the Lebanese for Israel.

With the guns and rockets silenced, it is tempting to join Peres and Christopher in their jubilation, but the written (though unsigned) agreement is at best a return to the status quo ante. That it is now a written document rather than a verbal understanding is hardly an improvement. What was wrong with the 1993 understandings was not that they were subject to varied and arbitrary interpretations, as both Christopher and Peres have claimed, but that it granted Syria a license to use a proxy army - the Hizbullah militia - to wage war against Israel, while it was purportedly negotiating peace with Jerusalem.

Worse, in 1993 the government agreed that this proxy army would operate under conditions which forced the IDF to fight with one hand tied behind its back. While Hizbullah was allowed to recruit, organize, train, store weapons and hide in villages, Israel was obligated by the understandings not to attack these villages. True, Hizbullah was prohibited from "launching attacks" from populated areas, but there was nothing to prevent its gunmen from using the villages as shelters immediately after firing mortars, Katyushas and machine guns from a few hundred meters away. This ludicrous situation is now perpetuated by the written agreement.

It is difficult to recall such a treacherous agreement in recent history. There have been cases in which dictatorial regimes negotiated while their proxies continued a war of attrition. But no government negotiating peace has ever given its partner to the talks license to kill its soldiers through proxies. On the contrary, negotiators always demand a total cease-fire during the talks. Nor has the IDF retained its "freedom of action" in Lebanon, as the government claims. It can only respond to firing; it cannot do what must be done against a guerrilla force: keep it off balance and on the run by taking the initiative.

Such limitations are costly. Since the 1993 understandings were reached, 66 Israelis and scores of South Lebanon Army soldiers have been killed in Lebanon. Worse, this forced passivity has demoralized the SLA, inducing many of its soldiers to defect and collaborate with Hizbullah.

Nor has it done the army any good to adhere to the understandings. In chasing Hizbullah units, or shelling the sources of enemy fire, or bombing Hizbullah targets from the air, inevitable mistakes caused the death of civilians. The Hizbullah then used this as a pretext for firing Katyushas at Israel. That it did so only on Syrian orders should have been clear long ago. Whenever Damascus wanted complete calm on the Lebanese border - as, for example, during the week of President Bill Clinton's visit - the Hizbullah did its bidding with exemplary discipline, as it also did in observing the cease-fire yesterday morning.

The only innovation of the present agreement is that now there will be a monitoring group, made up of Syrians, Lebanese, French, Americans and Israelis, to which complaints about violations of the agreement will be submitted. But no one can seriously expect the Syrians, who claim that the Hizbullah is a grass-root group of patriotic freedom-fighters striving to liberate their country from Israeli occupation, to punish Hizbullah for using villages as bases.

If there is one achievement Christopher can boast, it is that he has apparently managed to convince Syrian dictator Hafez Assad that it would be advantageous for him to calm the Lebanese border for a while. The administration has made no secret of its belief that the negotiations process will benefit if Peres, who has agreed to relinquish the Golan, is elected prime minister. And if Assad has been persuaded that his chances of getting Israel to withdraw to the June 4, 1967 lines will be enhanced by Peres's election, he may indeed keep the northern border quiet for the next few weeks.

Peres obviously believes that Assad will restrain Hizbullah sufficiently to prevent the shelling of Israeli towns, and that the negotiations will get back on track. But the glaring fact is that he has failed to achieve the minimum goal of Grapes of Wrath - a complete cease-fire in Lebanon. Assad is certain to remember this failure, and Peres's easy acquiescence in it, when his representatives return to the negotiations.

(c) Jerusalem Post 1996

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