Israel attempts a defence of its aggression

JERUSALEM - With a shaky ceasefire holding in Lebanon, Israel said yesterday that its offensive had been a success, writes Sarah Helm. But it was not a convincing justification for the week of death and destruction: the terms for yesterday's ceasefire have fallen well short of Israel's original goals.

The only strategic gain appeared to be an 'understanding' that Hizbollah would not fire rockets at northern Israel. But even on this point, Yossi Beilin, Israel's Deputy Foreign Minister, given the task of explaining the benefits of the action, conceded that there was 'nothing in writing'. The main aim had been to force Syria and Lebanon to guarantee, in the long term, to curb the power of Hizbollah, the Shia Muslim militants backed by Iran. But yesterday Mr Beilin said he did not know if there was any understanding reached on this point.

The minister then appeared to re-write the original war aims. He said that all Israel had asked for was an end to rocket attacks on Israel and this, they hoped, had been achieved.

In fact, Israel had also said at the start of the onslaught that it hoped to end attacks on its forces inside the Israeli-controlled 'security zone' in southern Lebanon. But the ceasefire deal contained no 'understandings' even on this point.

Mr Beilin appeared on stronger ground on the political achievements of the offensive. First, he said because the resolution of the conflict had been worked out by the United States, Warren Christopher, the US Secretary of State, who arrives shortly in Israel, would have more credibility and greater support to push the sides to make progress in the peace talks.

Secondly, the truce showed that all sides were committed to the peace process. On paper, however, all sides were committed to this before last week.

Thirdly, Mr Beilin said, the attack had produced a 'coalition of moderates' - moderate Arab countries and Israel. Hizbollah, meanwhile, had been exposed as the 'enemy of peace'.

Only time will tell whether Mr Beilin's last assertion is true. If it is, then Israel may yet be able to point to Operation Accountability as a turning- point in the peace process.

The negotiations certainly needed a shake-up, although nobody had asked it to be so brutal. The incursion may increase support in Israel for talking directly to the Palestine Liberation Organisation, which could only help. Some say Yitzhak Rabin, the Prime Minister, may now feel he has new support among the Israeli public, which will allow him to make new concessions to the Arabs. And the Arabs may see new rewards, largely from the US, in flexibility.

However, there is little reason to think Hizbollah has been broken. Mr Beilin insisted that the Lebanese 'scars' would not last and that the other war aim - the turning of Lebanese civilians against Hizbollah - had been achieved. He had no evidence for this.

Syria, the new 'moderate', will surely not reduce its main demand in the peace talks: return of the occupied Golan Heights. Commentators say Israeli public opinion has hardened against territorial compromise as a result of the conflict. Israeli forces spent seven days heightening fears of 'terrorist' threats emanating from beyond the country's borders. Meanwhile, the Palestinian question remains where it was seven days ago: hopelessly bogged down.

(Photograph omitted)

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