Approaching the front line
By Moshe Arens (Haaretz-18/4/2000)
For the past 18 years, ever since Operation Peace for Galilee started, the towns and villages of northern Israel have been separated from the front lines in southern Lebanon, kept separate by a security zone manned by units of the Israel Defense Forces and the South Lebanon Army.It is the announced intention of our prime minister to return those towns and villages to the front lines by July 7. He is hoping that once the IDF has withdrawn to the international border, Hezbollah's hostile activities will cease and no new anti-Israeli militias will make an appearance - that the front line will become a tranquil international border.

Ehud Barak evidently did not believe in the rule that decisions that can be delayed until tomorrow should not be taken today. It was a year ago, during the election campaign, that he announced his intention of withdrawing the IDF from southern Lebanon 12 months after taking office.

It was part of his grand strategy of setting deadlines for the accomplishment of tasks that were going to put an end to the "hundred-year-old Israeli-Arab conflict" within 15 months. He thought he could dictate the course of history as well as its pace of development, paying no heed to the uncertainties involved. Now Middle Eastern realities have begun to disabuse him of his illusion that he can inveigle Arab leaders to dance to his tune.

Syrian President Hafez Assad, who Barak called a "great, courageous leader," presumably prepared to sign a "peace of the brave," has turned out to be the enigmatic, recalcitrant dictator that we had come to know these past 30 years.

Even the offer of some territories on the Israeli side of the international border could not bring him around. He was as good as his word: the June 1967 lines, or no peace. Barak had been counting on Assad to prevent hostile activities against Israel after the IDF's withdrawal.

Unless he is prepared to give in to all of Hafez Assad's demands while remaining committed to his promise of an IDF withdrawal, he will have to fall back on the IDF's deterrent power. "You better not put us to the test," he says to anyone who is listening.

Why must the test be postponed until the IDF withdraws from southern Lebanon, until the towns and villages of the Galilee have been placed on the front lines, their populations exposed to the danger of attack at point-blank range?

It is hard to believe that Barak himself believes his rhetoric that, in any case, the security zone provides no protection for the population of the Galilee.

That there is no difference between being exposed to the danger of rockets and shells fired from a distance of a few kilometers and being endangered by automatic rifle fire and grenades launched at point-blank range.

Nor should he put much faith in a reinvigorated United Nations military force taking on Hezbollah after the IDF withdrawal.

He knows full well that if Assad permits Hezbollah or their collaborators to continue their attacks against Israeli targets after the IDF's withdrawal to the Israel-Lebanese frontier, we are likely to face casualties among our civilian population.

It is Israel's deterrence, rather than Assad's goodwill, that we will be depending on, come July, to avoid this turn of events.
When a 57-millimeter shell, launched by Hezbollah, landed in a chicken coop in Moshav Margaliot last week, Israel had a perfect opportunity to deliver the message that we had decided to change the rules of engagement in Lebanon: that we would not put up with any military action that endangered our civilian population.

A significant IDF response would have made this clear and set the stage for the planned IDF withdrawal. Instead, our prime minister decided to send our representative to the moribund and impotent Grapes of Wrath monitoring group to register a complaint. To Hezbollah and their Syrian handlers, that could only mean that our threats need not be taken too seriously.

Since, despite Israel's announced intention to withdraw from southern Lebanon, Hezbollah seems to have no intention of ceasing its activities against Israeli and SLA targets, Barak will probably have additional opportunities in the months to come to clarify our message. It is best that this be done before the population in the Galilee finds itself in the line of fire