Tue, Jun 15, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Withdrawal for Lebanon has new lesson for Israel

By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN  /  NEW YORK , NY TIMES

At a time when Israel's rightist parties are going through a wrenching debate over whether to approve Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's proposal for a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, it's worth recalling Israel's previous experience in this regard -- its unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon. Although that withdrawal is remembered as a failure, it deserves to be rehabilitated. Israel's Lebanon withdrawal was a great strategic success, for reasons that Israel should be studying now.

First, a few facts: After years of bloody guerrilla warfare that cost Israel dearly in lives and expense, on May 22, 2000, Israel unilaterally withdrew from southern Lebanon. On July 27, 2000, the UN passed Resolution 1310, confirming that Israel had "withdrawn its forces from Lebanon in accordance with Resolution 425."

With that UN-approved pullout, Israel completely reversed its situation: It went from holding the strategic and moral low ground to holding the strategic and moral high ground. When Israel was occupying southern Lebanon, it was embroiled in a guerrilla war in which it could never use its vast military superiority. It was going mano a mano with Hezbollah. Worse, any Hezbollah attack on Israel was seen by the world as legitimate resistance. Once Israel was out, it could use its superior air power to retaliate for Hezbollah attacks -- and most of the world didn't care.

"Sure," say the critics, "But the Palestinians saw the Israeli withdrawal as a sign of weakness and it triggered their Intifada II." Well, maybe the Palestinians did watch too much Hezbollah TV. Their mistake. But I'll tell you who didn't misread Israel's withdrawal: the people it was directed at -- Hezbollah, Lebanon and Syria.

Hezbollah knows it can't launch any serious attack on Israel from Lebanon now without triggering a massive retaliation in which Israel's air force would destroy all the power plants of Beirut. This would bring down the wrath of all of Lebanon on Hezbollah -- because the Lebanese public would not consider an unprovoked Hezbollah attack on Israel as legitimate, or worth sacrificing for, now that Israel is out of Lebanon and Lebanon's sovereignty is restored.

"In every conflict, the extent to which a party can muster domestic support and international support, and the extent to which its public will withstand higher thresholds of pain, is very much a function of the degree of international legitimacy for that cause," argues Shibley Telhami, Middle East studies professor at the University of Maryland. "As soon as Israel withdrew from Lebanon to the internationally recognized border, the legitimacy factor shifted from Hezbollah to Israel. This may seem abstract, but it's not."

When you have legitimacy on your side, your people and the world support you more, and the other side's people and the world support them less. Yes, the Israel-Lebanon border is still tense, but very few Israelis have been killed there in four years. That's my idea of peace. There is no total victory to be had by Israel over Hezbollah or the Palestinians without total genocide. There is, though, the possibility of long cease-fires, with Israel holding the moral and strategic high ground. In northern Israel today, Israelis can focus on what they want, which is making microchips, leaving the unlucky south Lebanese -- who are trapped under the Syrian and Hezbollah regimes -- to make potato chips.

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