- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 1, 2000

Today, Israel is in the midst of a major change in direction. Until just recently, the continued maintenance of an Israeli "security zone" within Lebanon was an integral element of Israeli policy. This zone, extending a few kilometers north of the Israel-Lebanon border and patrolled by Israeli soldiers together with the allied South Lebanon Army (SLA), was established about 15 years ago in order to protect northern Israel from terrorist incursion and bombardment. While Israel had no territorial claims in Lebanon, it was then deemed necessary to deploy forces within Lebanon itself in order to address the security threats emanating from Lebanese territory. Israelis still remember with horror the scenes of carnage and destruction left in the wake of repeated terrorist attacks launched against us from Lebanon in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Yet, over time, the "Lebanese equation" has slowly changed. So much so, that a few months ago, the Israeli government decided to withdraw from Lebanon unilaterally, as a means of better promoting Israel's security. And indeed, a full Israeli pullout from Lebanon was completed on May 25.

The Israeli withdrawal has been conducted in full coordination with the United Nations, and constitutes an Israeli fulfillment of its obligations under Security Council Resolution 425 (1978) which is designed to restore "international peace and security" to both sides of the border. Israel has worked closely with the United Nations in coordinating the withdrawal, marking the border, and defining the character of the future role of the U.N. Interim Force that is active in the area.

By withdrawing from Lebanon, Israel removes any alleged "legitimacy" for continued terrorist attacks against the "occupier's" soldiers and civilians, strengthening Israel's position in its efforts to bring peace to its northern border. Israel is in essence regaining the initiative and redefining the parameters of its actions.

The withdrawal should bring about an end to the unacceptable proxy war fought against Israel by groups such as the Hezbollah, in which the "rules of the game" were actually determined in Damascus and Teheran. Iran has constantly provided arms, financing and training to terrorist groups in Lebanon, while Syria has encouraged these groups to operate freely against Israel in the vast Lebanese areas under Syrian military control.

Today, these terrorists can no longer carry our their attacks against Israel under the doubtful banner of "Lebanese liberation." Resolution 425 also obligates the Lebanese government to take up "effective authority" throughout its territory. Having kept its part of the resolution, Israel now fully expects Beirut to fill the vacuum and to check the growing terrorist hegemony in the border zone.

Israelis would truly like to see calm and tranquillity on their northern border. We would welcome a Lebanese government, which is fully responsible for its sovereign territory. It is our belief that our withdrawal from Lebanon can create the impetus for such a change.

Yet, we know that hopes must be tempered by realism and deterrence. To this end, we have made it clear that if, after the withdrawal, Israel faces attack from Lebanese territory, the response will be forceful. It will be based upon the compelling right to self-defense, the cornerstone of international law and legitimacy. This response will be directed not only toward those terrorists, but also toward those parties who aid, support and enable them. I am sure that any other nation would act similarly to protect its citizens from external attack.

This process is taking place within the context of an even greater process, that of achieving a comprehensive Middle East peace. All parties who are interested in promoting Arab-Israeli reconciliation must remember that a stable Lebanon is an indispensable element of comprehensive Middle East Peace. We are convinced that both Lebanon and Israel desire this peace and that the people of the entire region deserve it.

I have invested most of my diplomatic career in cultivating and helping build this process, from its very beginning at the Madrid Conference of 1991, through the bold decisions taken by the Barak government this very day. I am proud to be part of this endeavor. Having witnessed firsthand the efforts made by Israel's leadership to keep the process moving forward, I have confidence in our ability and our perseverance to reach the peace that we have worked so hard to achieve, both on the northern border and throughout the region as a whole.

Eytan Bentsur is director-general of Israel's Foreign Ministry.

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