WINDS OF CHANGE.

Author:Blanford, Nicholas
 
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At the beginning of January Israel's Defence Minister, Yitzhak Mordechai, made the sudden and startling admission that his government was ready to comply with United Nations Security Council Resolution 425.

Resolution 425 was passed in March 1978 following Israel's first invasion of Lebanon and calls on the Jewish state to withdraw immediately and unilaterally from the south.

Although Mordechai's statement was the first time Israel had publicly accepted the resolution, this apparent gesture of goodwill was tempered by the declaration that the Jewish state would only withdraw from its occupation zone in south Lebanon if the government in Beirut offered security guarantees.

These guarantees would include the dismantling of Hizbollah's military wing -- which spearheads the resistance to the Israeli occupation -- the deployment of the Lebanese army in the south and the incorporation of Israel's proxy militia, the South Lebanon Army, into the regular Lebanese armed forces.

The reaction from Beirut was swift and uncompromising: Resolution 425 clearly demands a unilateral withdrawal and on no account would Lebanon provide guarantees for the safety of northern Israel.

Thus Lebanon was placed in the awkward position of apparently rejecting an Israeli offer to withdraw its troops from the south.

Yet why was Beirut so adamant in opposing an Israeli withdrawal and, indeed, why was the hawkish and uncompromising Israeli Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, apparently so eager to leave Lebanon?

The answer lies in the broader perspective of the regional peace process, the domestic mood within Israel and the moribund state of the Palestinian track.

Israel has always claimed to have had no territorial interest in Lebanon, and its military presence in the south was designed to safeguard the Jewish settlements in northern Israel from guerrilla attacks.

Last year witnessed the highest number of Israeli army casualties in the south since the current perimeters of the occupation zone were carved out in 1985. The 39 combat deaths as well as the 73 soldiers and airmen killed in a mid-air helicopter collision in February 1997 has provoked growing public calls in Israel for an end to the occupation, a sentiment Netanyahu has seen fit to exploit.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian track was foundering over an Israeli redeployment from Hebron. Despite intensive mediation by the United States, Netanyahu remained reluctant to withdraw troops from the area as previously agreed.

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