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BEIRUT — When the Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations resumed in December, it was widely recognized that perhaps the greatest hazard they faced was the war of attrition between Hezbollah guerrillas and Israelis in occupied South Lebanon. The United States joined Israel in entreating Syrian President Hafez al-Assad to restrain the Iranian-backed Islamic resistance.

But Assad would have none of it, knowing that the pain inflicted on Israel in its Lebanese hell hole was a key reason why Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak was signaling his readiness for a peace settlement in which Israel not only got out of South Lebanon, but came down from the Golan Heights, too. Assad wanted to retain the ability to go on inflicting the pain until he had cast-iron guarantees that that would actually happen.

South Lebanon is a last, potent card in Assad’s otherwise historically weakening negotiating hand. But it is a double-edged one. Given the overall imbalance of military power between the two adversaries, it can at any time be turned into a far more potent one in Israel’s hand. Tel Aviv’s second blitz on Lebanese power stations in seven months was dramatic illustration of that. It was also through the adroit use of this card, Barak said, that he persuaded Assad to come back to the negotiating table. He pledged to pull his army out of South Lebanon by July this year. That, paradoxically, was evidently more menacing to Assad than its staying. For after such a unilateral withdrawal, involving no agreement with Syria, Israel would have far less incentive to withdraw from the Golan.

That was the stick. But there was also, more importantly, the carrot. This was Barak’s assurance that he would, as Assad insists, respect the commitment supposedly made by the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin that a full withdrawal from the Golan means a withdrawal to the June 4, 1967 ceasefire lines on the shores of Lake Galilee.

Or it was what the Syrians chose to interpret as such an assurance. Assad was quickly disabused. His negotiators at Shepherdstown, Virginia, concluded that the Israelis still had not come clean on the claimed withdrawal commitment, and were insisting that discussion of other issues — security arrangements, normalization, water — take precedence over what, to Syria, is the primordial question of territory. A leaked U.S. working paper seemed to demonstrate that while Syria had become much more conciliatory than hitherto on most issues, the Israelis would not even use the word “withdrawal,” only redeployment. And this “redeployment” would exclude civilians — which appeared to mean that, if Israel got its way, its Golan settlements would remain in place after the conclusion of a peace treaty.

It was clearly time, in Assad’s judgment, to apply pain in South Lebanon. The Hezbollah obliged with a vengeance. They had recently appeared to go into decline, having killed no Israeli soldiers since August. But now they made a spectacular comeback; in the space of a week, they managed, among other things, to kill six Israeli soldiers and assassinate the second-in-command of the South Lebanese Army, Israel’s now thoroughly demoralized local ally. And they achieved all this within the precise, U.S.-brokered, U.N.-monitored “rules” of South Lebanese warfare, under which neither side is permitted to attack civilian targets, but the Hezbollah is free to attack military ones in the border zone. In its 25-year involvement in South Lebanon, it has usually been Israel that breaks the rules, in a grand manner, whenever the pain becomes too much. It did so Monday night; and last week an Israeli minister, Haim Ramon, went so far as to publicly assert that it no longer deems itself bound by them.

This is an ominous threat in an increasingly ominous situation. It has often been forecast that this little corner of a little country is where the Middle East peace process — with treaties between Israel, Syria and Lebanon — will achieve its final breakthrough or collapse. There is little doubt that its role as a flash point of regional confrontation is coming to a head once more. It is not just the peace talks, and the military brinkmanship it has engendered, it is that plus Barak’s pledge, reiterated once again, to pull out by July. Yet it is becoming increasingly obvious that he cannot do that without walking into potential strategic and political disaster.

The Hezbollah have made it plain that they will seek to turn any withdrawal into rout and humiliation of a kind Israel has never experienced before. Furthermore, observers both here and in Israel ask, what possible guarantee could there be, in such circumstances, that Hezbollah would not simply move up to the international frontier and, from there, carry out raids into Israel proper — which would negate the very purpose of the 25-year-old security zone? What possible guarantee that Assad — let alone Iran — would not support them?

If Hezbollah and Assad don’t back off, Israel risks finding itself with only one means of creating acceptable conditions for a withdrawal, let alone for a wider peace, and that is to go for the jugular in Lebanon, to exploit its overwhelming military superiority to inflict overwhelming pain on Assad. Almost certainly the objective would not merely be to strip Assad of his last great strategic asset, South Lebanon, but to clobber him into submission. It is an ambition that could spiral into war. Prisoner of his own, high-risk gamble, whiplashed by public opinion, Barak is now in clear danger of being forced down that path. An Israeli general recently said that, if necessary, Israel would now mount actions far bigger and stronger in response to any Hezbollah provocation.

With the Israeli government and public largely at one in portraying Syria as the real villain behind Hezbollah, it surely could not be long before such actions broaden and intensify into attacks on Syrian targets in Lebanon. As one Israeli newspaper, Maariv, put it, “The Syrians must be given a choice: Continue to talk peace with Israel or fight with it in Lebanon.” With that withdrawal deadline only five months away, stakes may soon reach giddy heights.

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