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An Israeli Withdrawal in Return For Disarming Hizbullah

It is the surest way to avoid further strain on the peace process

The recent written agreement between Lebanon and Israel to regulate the fighting between Hizbullah and Israel will be no more durable than the 1993 "understanding."

As soon as the agreement was published, our organization predicted that Hizbullah, an anti-Israeli guerrilla group, would try to put it to the test and that its attacks on Israeli forces occupying south Lebanon would intensify if Syria were dissatisfied with the pace of peace negotiations.

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We did not realize that Hizbullah's first test would come so soon (mortar attacks on South Lebanon Army posts on April 30). Shimon Peres, prime minister at the time, told the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth that without a resumption of negotiations with Syria, the understandings in Lebanon would not hold.

The agreement poses several difficulties. What happens, for instance, if the monitoring committee, made up of the United States, Lebanon, Syria, France, and Israel, decides that either Israel or Hizbullah has violated the agreement? Does it allow the aggrieved party to suspend the agreement until retribution is exacted?

Based on past experience, Israel will become frustrated with increasingly sophisticated Hizbullah attacks on its soldiers in the so-called security zone. Because Hizbullah is elusive, Israel is likely to shell the villages where the guerrillas came from, resulting in civilian casualties. Lebanese civilian casualties, in turn, have typically led to Hizbullah Katyusha attacks on northern Israel.

The surest way to avoid further strain on the peace process and on Israel's fledgling relations with Arab states is an Israeli withdrawal in return for Lebanon's disarming of Hizbullah. Such a step has advantages for Israel, Lebanon, and the US. It also puts the peace process on an exclusively diplomatic track by eliminating Lebanon as the last active front in the Arab-Israeli war.

A proposal to Israel made in October 1994 by Lebanese President Elias Hrawi is not far from what Israel itself has offered, and it should be relatively easy to bridge the two. The Hrawi plan maintains that if Israel commits to withdrawing from Lebanon within six months, with the US and Russia acting as guarantors, then Lebanon will ensure that no shot will be fired during that period and will appoint a military committee to discuss with Israel the modalities of the withdrawal.

In the past, Israel has proposed that if Lebanon disarms Hizbullah, and the Lebanese Army can prevent attacks against Israel in the security zone for a six- to nine-month period, Israel will consider withdrawing from south Lebanon. Israel may also want to discuss a peace agreement with Lebanon at the end of this period.

We think a sane synthesis of these two proposals would be the following:

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*Israel must commit to a phased withdrawal from Lebanon in a six-month period.

*An Israeli withdrawal must be guaranteed, at a minimum, by the US.

*Lebanon must complete its disarmament of Hizbullah three months prior to the final Israeli withdrawal.

*The Lebanese Army must demonstrate its peacekeeping capability by preventing any shots from being fired during the six-month period.

*A separate Lebanese-Israeli peace agreement is not possible before an Israeli-Syrian agreement, but Lebanon will guarantee that it will sign a peace agreement with Israel as part of a comprehensive Arab peace agreement.

There are some obstacles to this surprisingly simple scheme. Israel and the US don't think that Syria would allow Hizbullah to be disarmed until Israel commits to withdrawing from the Golan Heights. They foresee an Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon only as part of comprehensive peace.

Indeed, Syria was reportedly displeased when President Hrawi made his proposal in 1994, but Lebanon has made the point that this is not a peace agreement with Israel, and Syria would have difficulty rejecting such an arrangement.

Israel is also concerned about the fate of its client militia, the South Lebanon Army (SLA). Lebanon must grant an amnesty to all members of the SLA, except for high officers. In 1991, Lebanon granted amnesty to members of other militia in order to promote reconciliation. Israel must resettle high SLA officers in Israel, which we have been told it is willing to do.

Israel doesn't want it to look as though it is withdrawing under pressure, but the lopsidedness of its recent confrontation with Hizbullah should dispel any such notion. Lebanon, on the other hand, has been reluctant to disarm Hizbullah until Israel has completed its withdrawal.

The Lebanese government's confidence that its Army can ensure security, as well as an American guarantee that Israel will keep its word and withdraw within the six-month period, should be sufficient.

The biggest obstacle to the implementation of this sensible scheme is the Clinton administration's refusal to budge from its conviction that Lebanon's dilemma can only be solved as part of a comprehensive peace agreement. We believe an Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in return for Hizbullah's disarmament will actually promote the peace process.

The administration should take advantage of the growing number of Israeli officials who espouse withdrawal. These Israelis recognize that Palestinians have not been allowed to attack Israel from Lebanese soil since the Lebanese government began to reestablish itself in 1990. They also recognize that Hizbullah is only interested in liberating south Lebanon, not Palestine, and that Israel actually endangers its northern borders by continuing to occupy south Lebanon.

There is no guarantee when, if ever, Syria and Israel, both notoriously stubborn negotiators, will conclude a peace agreement. Lebanon should not have to serve as the battleground for those two adversaries until that time.

* Thomas A. Nassif, former US ambassador to Morocco, is chairman of the American Task Force for Lebanon in Washington.

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