- The Washington Times - Monday, March 6, 2000

JERUSALEM Israel's Cabinet voted unanimously yesterday to withdraw its troops from south Lebanon by July after an 18-year occupation, clearly announcing its intention to fulfill a year-old promise by Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

"It's an end to the tragedy," Mr. Barak told reporters. "We are bringing the boys home."

The Cabinet said Israel would try to withdraw through a peace agreement with Syria, but officials said the troops would leave by July in any case.

The firm deadline now presses Syria, the main power broker in Lebanon, either to return to suspended peace talks or to continue hostilities without its most important bargaining chip the use of the fighting in Lebanon to extract concessions from Israel.

Lebanese Prime Minister Selim Hoss responded swiftly to the Israeli move, saying he welcomed an Israeli pullout from occupied Lebanese territory "at any time," regardless of whether the decision was seen as a political maneuver.

A spokesman for Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright also welcomed the Cabinet decision and called on Israel and Syria to restart U.S.-hosted peace talks suspended in January.

While the move may boost Israel's negotiating stance, it also holds risks.

A unilateral withdrawal from the occupied zone in southern Lebanon would leave Israel's northern border vulnerable to attacks by Iranian-backed Hezbollah guerrillas, a state of affairs that Israel's army chief said could cost more Israeli lives, including civilian casualties.

"In such a situation will the army be required to pay a heavier price than what we are paying today?" Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz asked. "That will be the $20,000 question."

The Cabinet did not explicitly mention a unilateral withdrawal, apparently to avoid irritating Syria, which opposes a pullback without a peace deal.

Its statement, however, left little doubt. It said that "in case the conditions for a deployment by agreement are not met, the Cabinet will discuss, at the appropriate time, how to implement the decision."

Mr. Barak's spokesman, Gadi Baltiansky, said that whatever the scenario, "the troops will be withdrawn by July." But he stressed that Israel still hopes for a peace accord.

Mr. Barak warned that Israel's response to any post-withdrawal attack would be harsh.

"I don't advise anyone to test our reaction when we are deployed on the international border and defending Israel from there," he said.

Whether the Cabinet decision was intended as a strategic move, Israel clearly hopes it will pressure Syria to resume talking to Israel.

Israel maintains Syria is using the low-level war in Lebanon, and the resulting Israeli deaths, as a means of pressuring Israel to give back the Golan Heights, captured from Syria in 1967. Minister for Jerusalem Affairs Haim Ramon said the Cabinet's decision improves Israel's position in the negotiations by impairing Syria's leverage.

"The Syrians very, very much don't like the idea of a unilateral withdrawal," Mr. Ramon said. "Now, if they want, this is the time to leave with an agreement."

Peace talks broke off in January over a Syrian demand that Israel agree in advance to withdraw from the entire Golan Heights. Israel refused, saying it first wanted to know the extent of peace and security arrangements Syria was prepared to offer.

The United States is mediating, but there are no direct contacts between Israel and Syria, Mr. Barak said yesterday, adding he didn't know when or if they would resume.

Just days after the talks broke down, guerrilla attacks on Israeli troops escalated. Seven Israeli soldiers died within three weeks, stepping up public pressure on Mr. Barak to bring the troops home.

It was not clear how Hezbollah would react to a unilateral withdrawal, though Israeli officials predicted the guerrillas would continue their fight. Hezbollah has said that it would focus on politics following an Israeli withdrawal, but has not committed to lay down arms.

Ephraim Sneh, the deputy defense minister, said that Iranian arms shipments to Hezbollah through Syria had increased in recent weeks.

At the Cabinet meeting, Mr. Barak said that if peace talks with Syria did not resume within two or three months, a peace deal was unlikely for a while, at least 1* years, his office said.

His aides denied, however, that the Cabinet decision was aimed at sending a message to Syria, noting that Mr. Barak first promised the July withdrawal a year ago, when he was running for prime minister.

Mr. Sneh, a close Barak aide, said that if the withdrawal was carried out unilaterally, Israel would consider using "different military tactics." He would not elaborate, but other officials have suggested that Israel might try to pull out with a set of international guarantees over such issues as a final border and the safety of Israel-allied militiamen.

With or without an agreement, Mr. Sneh said, Israel would try to retain small areas on the Lebanese side of the border that it occupied beginning around 1980, in response to cross-border attacks. He said the amount of territory was negligible.

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