U.S. Must Insist Israel Return to the Peace Talks and Withdraw from Lebanon

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s decision to pull out of the peace talks with Syria is a shameless capitulation to Israel’s far right and raises serious questions as to whether the Israeli government is seriously interested in peace. President Clinton must demand that Israel return immediately to the negotiation table and come into full compliance with UN Security Council resolutions or risk an immediate cutoff of U.S. military and economic aid.

The Israeli government broke off the talks following an attack by Lebanese guerrillas against Israeli occupation forces inside Lebanon. Israel has insisted that Syria somehow stop these Lebanese fighters from engaging in such attacks before negotiations can resume. However, the Hezbollah militia is not controlled by the Syrian government; they operate independently and have relied on Iran as their major backer. Indeed, throughout the 1980s, the Hezbollah engaged in a series of bloody clashes with a Syrian proxy militia known as Amal. While some of the Hezbollah’s arms supplies come through Syria and Syrian forces are stationed in other parts of Lebanon, the Syrians correctly note that international law recognizes the right of those under foreign military occupation to armed resistance against the forces of the occupation army.

Indeed, Syrian president Hafez al-Assad would never agree unilaterally to disarm the Hezbollah while Israel continues to occupy any part of Lebanon or Syria. The Israelis no doubt know this and were probably looking for an excuse to break off the talks, even as the Syrians had agreed to most of their demands. Nonetheless, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright still condemns the Lebanese for fighting Israeli occupation forces on their land while refusing to criticize Israel for backing out of the talks.

Even if the Syrian dictator was willing to attempt to reign in the guerrillas, neither Hezbollah nor the Lebanese people would let him do so without a fight. With the United States blocking enforcement of a series of UN Security Council resolutions ordering Israel’s unconditional withdrawal from Lebanese territory, most Lebanese now see armed struggle as necessary. Even the pro-Western, conservative Lebanese government supports the Hezbollah’s right to resist.

If Barak is serious about protecting Israeli soldiers, he should withdraw them from Lebanese territory. The majority of Israelis, including the right-wing opposition Likud bloc, support Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon, seeing it has a hopeless quagmire that has cost the lives of hundreds of soldiers. Almost all of the Hezbollah attacks against Israelis had been against Israeli soldiers in occupied Lebanon-not civilians in Israel itself. It is thus the so-called “security zone” in which Israelis are most vulnerable. Neither the U.S. nor the Israeli governments appear willing to consider such a withdrawal, preferring instead to blame Syria for the situation.

The occupation is also illegal. UN Security Council resolution 425 and nine subsequent resolutions demand that Israel withdraw from all Lebanese territory unconditionally. However, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for the Middle East Martin Indyk has publicly called on Israel to remain in Lebanon anyway, effectively calling on a U.S. ally to defy resolutions supported by previous U.S. administrations. It is ironic that the Clinton administration is willing to starve Iraqi children for their government’s noncompliance with UN Security Council resolutions while at the same time it continues to openly support Israel’s ongoing defiance of the world body.

Israel first seized control of southern Lebanon in 1978, following a bloody attack by Palestinian commandos on the Israeli coast. With the assistance of a right-wing Lebanese militia-which has essentially evolved into a foreign regiment of the Israeli army-Israel has controlled a six-to twelve-mile strip of Lebanon along its northern border ever since, representing about 10 percent of Lebanon’s territory. The resistance fighters of the Hezbollah are composed mostly of Shiite Muslims native to the farming villages adjacent to the Israeli-held territory. Even those who do not agree with the militia’s fundamentalist ideology see them as freedom fighters, trying to liberate their country from a foreign military occupation.

Islamic extremists were never much of a factor in Lebanon until after the 1982 U.S.-backed Israeli invasion and the subsequent direct U.S. military intervention in support of a rightist Lebanese government installed under Israeli guns. During this period, the more moderate Islamic and secular groups were largely destroyed, from which the Hezbullah has filled the vacuum.

This fundamentalist movement, which was responsible for the kidnapping of several Americans and other Westerners in the 1980s, has come from nowhere a little more than fifteen years ago to become one of Lebanon’s most powerful political groupings. It is from the hundreds of thousands of Lebanese Shiites who have fled north from years of Israeli attacks into the slums of the greater Beirut where Hezbollah receives the core of its support. Indeed, Hezbollah did not even exist until four years after Israel began its occupation and heavy bombardment of southern Lebanon. It is very much a manifestation of US and Israeli policy.

The Hezbollah is not just anti-occupation, but anti-Israel. However, there is little question that their popular support would considerably lessen as soon as the Israelis withdrew. At that point, the Lebanese and Syrian authorities could disarm them, as they have other militias.

However, Israel-with U.S. backing–continues to try to resolve the situation by force. Israel has repeatedly bombed civilian targets throughout Lebanon, targeting bridges, dams, power plants, and other segments of the country’s civilian infrastructure many miles from areas of Hezbollah control. The Israelis have killed many hundreds of Lebanese civilians in their bombing and shelling attacks, including a1996 raid on a UN compound sheltering refugees in which more than one hundred civilians were killed; reports by the United Nations, Amnesty International, and other investigators indicate that the bombardment was deliberate. The Clinton administration has repeatedly defended such Israeli attacks, vetoing UN resolutions condemning the violence and slandering human rights groups and UN agencies which have exposed the extent of the humanitarian tragedy.

Through its massive attacks on Lebanon, Israel has resorted to the same tactics for which it accuses its Hezbollah enemy: terrorizing innocent civilians in order to influence government policy. Just as the attacks by Arab extremists against Israeli civilians have hardened Israeli attitudes towards the peace process, so have Israel’s attacks against Lebanese civilians, which have resulted in far more casualties and will likely make it all the more difficult for Lebanon and Syria to compromise further with Israel. The U.S. has acknowledged that Syria has already agreed to demilitarize the Golan Heights, allow for international monitors, sign a nonaggression pact, and pursue normal diplomatic relations with Israel. Yet is not willing to insist that Israel move forward with the peace process. The Clinton administration, by arming and funding Israeli occupation forces and refusing to insist Israel return to the negotiating table, severely weakens the credibility of the United States as an honest broker.

With the Clinton administration rendering the UN ineffective, the Lebanese government-whose foreign affairs are largely dictated by Syria-is left only with the hope of negotiating an Israeli withdrawal through the U.S.-brokered peace talks which must focus first on a peace agreement between Syria and Israel. Given that Israel has now broken off these talks, the Lebanese victims of Israeli occupation and attacks (as well as the Israeli conscripts risking their lives for the sake of a tragically misguided US-Israeli policy) have little for which to hope.

If the United States is truly Israel’s friend, the Clinton administration must be willing to pressure Israel to abide by its international obligations, withdraw its forces from Lebanon, and negotiate a peace settlement with Syria that returns all Syrian territory in exchange for security guarantees. Only then will Israel find the security it so desperately wants and deserves.