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Israel looks for reasons to exit Lebanon

The push for a solution in the buffer zone increases after killingslast week.

Israelis thought they heard the magic words they've been longing to hear: that if only they pulled their troops out of south Lebanon, the Lebanese government would send in its Army to secure the border and prevent the Iranian-backed Hizbollah guerrillas from attacking northern Israel.

In an interview with the BBC's Arabic service broadcast on March 6, Lebanese Prime Minister Selim Hoss had suggested that if Israel withdrew, the two countries would operate on the basis of their 1949 armistice agreement, according to which "there could be no action, no military action, across the border."

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But later that day, Mr. Hoss was quickly backpedaling, saying that his remarks had been misinterpreted.

The seesawing served as a reminder that there are no magic wands to bring a swift and simple end to the conflict in south Lebanon - and that a deal to do so will almost surely have to involve Syria, the de facto decisionmaker next door.

Hoss's initial remarks were met with enthusiasm in Jerusalem, where the government is still reeling from last week's loss of a senior army officer, two soldiers, and a journalist. They were killed while traveling on a south Lebanese road booby-trapped with explosives set by the Hizbollah.

The incident has rekindled debate here over how to extricate Israel from its unpopular Lebanon quagmire and thrust the issue to the top of candidates' talking points ahead of national elections May 17.

With families weary of sending their men off to risk their lives in the self-declared "security zone" Israel has maintained since 1985, two schools of thought have begun to emerge. One argues that Israel should withdraw unilaterally from the zone, working on the assumption that the Hizbollah is only an anti-occupation militia and as such, won't simply advance to the border to continue attacks on northern Israel.

The other, more aggressive camp argues that Israel tied its own soldiers' hands with the "Memorandum of Understanding" that ended the Grapes of Wrath conflict in 1996. Under rules aimed at limiting civilian casualties, the agreement prohibits the Israeli army from targeting villages the guerrillas often use as launching pads. This camp still sees a possible military solution and wants to change or get out of the Memorandum of Understanding.

Deeming both retreat and escalation too risky, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has avoided either one as the conflict grinds on. In the meantime, Israel has asked the United States to seek clarification of Hoss's references to the 1949 armistice. And, in an attempt to revive Syrian-Israeli talks, Martin Indyk, the assistant US secretary of State for Near East affairs, will meet with Syrian President Hafez al-Assad in Damascus March 14.

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While referring to the lexicon of coded rhetoric that has come to define the way nations in the region communicate, analysts have been trying to divine what Hoss may have had in mind. Some say that by expressing his willingness to have the Lebanese Army police the south, Hoss tells the world that Lebanon is willing to do its part to end the conflict. That rebuffs Mr. Netanyahu's complaint that although he has offered to withdraw from south Lebanon, he can't because Lebanon won't agree to security guarantees that would allow Israel to leave.

"They want the international legitimacy that Israel has tried to steal away," says Prof. Martin Kramer, an expert on Lebanese affairs at Tel Aviv University.

At the same time, Hoss's backpedaling sends a message that Syria - which wants Israel to return the Golan Heights it captured in 1967 - will not allow Lebanon to negotiate with Israel independently.

Mr. Assad wants Syrian-Israeli talks, which were conducted under the late Israeli leader Yitzhak Rabin, to be picked up at the point where they broke off: with an Israeli agreement in principle to withdraw from the entire Golan.

Israel now opposes that all-or-nothing demand. Defense Minister Moshe Arens, a veteran hard-liner, says that if the only road to peace with Syria is giving up all the Golan, then it's a concession Israel can't afford to make. Instead, he has asked the top ranks of the Israel Defense Forces to reexamine the military situation in Lebanon and present him with alternative options.

"There is no chance of reaching agreement with Syria without totally conceding the Golan Heights," Mr. Arens told reporters March 8. "There are those who are ready to pay it. I think this is a price we should not pay."

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