The war in Lebanon has been Israel's Vietnam. Every Friday, women, dressed in black, gather in front of the Prime Minister's house with one simple message: Bring our sons and daughters home.
In July, that wish will become a reality. On Sunday, Israel's Cabinet voted unanimously, across party lines, to approve a plan to withdraw troops from the southern Lebanon "security zone" by July. This end to the 15-year occupation by the Israeli Army meets a campaign promise of Prime Minister Ehud Barak--and means relief for Israeli families who live in fear of the call that their child will be sent to Lebanon.
Any move in the delicate Middle East, however, leaves a wide wake. After Israel's withdrawal, the militia groups in Lebanon that Israel currently supports will likely disband and flee, leaving the Hezbollah, the Islamic terrorist group financed by Iran, in control of the southern half of the country. Hezbollah could continue to fire missiles at Israeli cities, and the withdrawal will certainly make it a greater threat to the weak Lebanese government and to Syria, which has tried, like Israel, to balance the situation in Lebanon in its favor.
Despite these challenges, however, we are confident that this is the right move for Israel and the region as a whole, a huge step on the path to peace. Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon have welcomed the announcement but question Israel's intentions; with Israel out of Lebanon, there will be more pressure on the Syrians both to re-enter peace talks with Israel and to leave Lebanon themselves. While Syria's outgoing foreign minister has declared that the nation will not succumb to outside pressure, Israel has made clear that its withdrawal from Lebanon is not contingent on Syria's response: "We will not be hostages to its continued rejectionism," said Israeli foreign minister David Levy.
Now that Israel has tired of the pain and bloodshed of more than a decade of low-intensity warfare, it must find another way to protect its northern areas from Hezbollah attack. Having withdrawn from Lebanon, it can now seek international help to secure its borders. Yesterday, United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan announced that the U.N. has been helping to draft the withdrawal plans.
As July approaches, more and more external pressure will be placed on Syria to make a move toward reconciliation. Israel is willing to discuss the withdrawal from the Golan Heights, taken from Syria in 1967, and is now leaving the area of Lebanon bordering Syria; it is Syria's turn to make concessions for peace. Yesterday's announcement of a shake-up within the Syrian government--President Hafez Assad fired his entire Cabinet--will hopefully be a step toward a more conciliatory Syrian attitude. In economic terms and within the diplomatic community, it seems Syria may not have a choice: it, like Jordan, needs ties to Israel's economy and technology, and peace may just be a matter of time, pride and land.
The details of the withdrawal, the security plans and the connection to the peace process are still tenuous, but even in the unpredictable Middle East, this seems like a positive sign. The withdrawal has been a courageous step by Israel to stick its neck out for peace; we can only hope that Syria sees the wisdom of doing the same.
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