The evacuation of an SLA battalion from Jezzine, a wooded mountain resort town where troops have been stationed for 14 years, is an admission that the Islamic Hizbollah militia is winning the war of attrition there and a test of the Leban-ese army's capacity to fill the vacuum, if and when Israel pulls back from the security zone as a whole.
The incoming Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, vowed during the election campaign to "bring the boys home" within one year of taking office. He hopes to negotiate an agreement with the Beirut government and its Syrian patron under which the Lebanese army would keep the border quiet.
The Jezzine decision was taken in consultation with the Labour leader by the caretaker Likud Defence Minister, Moshe Arens. It is being projected as the free choice of the SLA commander, General Antoin Lahad. Israel is helping him to save face by increasing its subsidy to the militia and the communities from which they are recruited. The SLA soldiers' monthly wages will go up from $400 to $500 (pounds 315). Israel will also upgrade their fortifications and weapons.
General Lahad's position had become untenable. At Israel's behest, his troops were stationed in Jezzine, a Christian town whose population has dwindled from 35,000 to 3,000 since 1985 as residents fled. In recent weeks they have been harassed by Hizbollah, who seriously wounded a battalion commander and killed his deputy. Yet Israel refused to let the SLA hit back, fearing retaliation against Israeli civilian targets south of the border.
Jezzine controls the road between the Syrian garrison in the Bekaa valley to the east and the security zone and the Mediterranean coast to the south and west. Once the SLA pulls out, it will be much easier for Hizbollah to supply its fighters with arms and ammunition from the Bekaa.
Israeli sources denied yesterday that there had been any deal with Beirut or Hizbollah. They hope, however, that the Lebanese army, which maintains a company in the vicinity, will protect the remaining pro-SLA population from Hizbollah revenge. The Lebanese Prime Minister, Salim el-Hoss, said this week that his Government would take "appropriate measures" if Israel's allies withdrew.
The Jezzine initiative coincides with quickening diplomatic activity in anticipation of Mr Barak's accession. King Abdullah of Jordan visited the Palestinian President, Yasser Arafat, in Gaza on Wednesday. They agreed to co-ordinate Arab positions when peace negotiations resume.
The King is trying to convene a summit with Mr Arafat and President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt.
Syria's President, Hafez al-Assad, has been more cautious in welcoming Mr Barak's victory, but the official Damascus daily, Al Baath, wrote in a front-page editorial on Wednesday: "It is necessary that the Arabs adopt a united stand, which is more imperative at this stage than ever before."
Mr Barak has completed the first, exploratory stage of coalition-building. Negotiations with potential partners began in earnest yesterday, though he will probably need another two or three weeks before he can present his government.
The defeated Likud Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, was expected to announce last night that he was resigning from parliament, as well as the party leadership.
Likud has been racked by reports this week that an unnamed senior minister acted as a Labour mole in the Netanyahu campaign headquarters. He is said to have wanted to hasten Mr Netanyahu's political demise.Reuse content