Peres is forced to change course

MIDDLE EAST IN TURMOIL

In the wake of the massacre of 101 Lebanese at Qana, Israel is looking for a ceasefire through a United States mediation effort. The terms of the ceasefire are likely to reinstate the understanding of 1993 under which Israel and Hizbollah undertook not to fire at civilian targets outside the Israeli-occupied zone in the south of Lebanon.

Warren Christopher, the US Secretary of State, arrives in Damascus today for talks with President Hafaz el-Assad, and Dennis Ross, the US peace coordinator, was expected in Israel last night. Within hours of the slaughter of refugees at the United Nations post at Qana, President Bill Clinton reversed his previous tolerance of the Israeli operation and called for an immediate ceasefire.

The change in the American position led Shimon Peres, the Israeli Prime Minister, to alter his own political course. Ehud Barak, his Foreign Minister, had wanted to negotiate with Syria and Lebanon while keeping them under pressure by continuing the bombardment. Late on Thursday night, after an emergency cabinet meeting, Mr Peres said: "It is also possible to conduct the negotiations for new understandings when there is a ceasefire on the ground. We don't have to be firing."

After a brief hiatus in Israeli artillery fire on Thursday, its heavy guns once again opened fire as Katyusha rockets fell on northern Galilee. Mr Peres has always said that the aim of Operation Grapes of Wrath was to safeguard the northern border of Israel from rocket attack.

In fact Israel's real objectives were more ambitious. These are no longer attainable since an Israeli army howitzer fired 155mm shells into the refugees huddled in the Fijian UN post. Aluf Ben, a commentator in the daily Ha'aretz, says that in asking for a ceasefire Israel has failed on a number of fronts, including a demand for greater latitude in retaliating against Hizbollah than was agreed under the 1993 understanding.

Other notable failures include underestimating President Assad. At the end of last month he appeared isolated by the Sharm el-Sheikh summit on terrorism arranged by President Clinton, at which Israel was supported by most Arab leaders. Following the failure of Grapes of Wrath to force him to rein in Hizbollah, President Assad has strengthened his preeminence in Lebanon and the Arab world.

Mr Peres appears to have failed to control the Israeli army and notably the head of its Northern Command, Major General Amiram Levine. In contrast to Yitzhak Rabin, his predecessor as prime minister and a former Chief of Staff, Mr Peres delegated his responsibilities as Defence Minister.Ha'aretz says that under General Levine's leadership what Mr Peres had intended as a surgical strike became an attack "on the civil infrastructure of Lebanon and climaxed with the killing of dozens of civilians". Israeli aircraft have also attacked Palestinian refugee camps and Lebanese and Syrian army units.

It is unlikely that a ceasefire in Lebanon will do much harm to Mr Peres in the election on 29 May, though it may not do him as much good as he once hoped. One poll published yesterday, taken mainly before the Qana massacre, showed him losing one percentage point against Binyamin Netanyahu, the leader of Likud, who will be his rival for the prime minister's office. Mr Peres has a 5 per cent lead with 50 per cent of the vote, compared to 45 per cent for Mr Netanyahu, who is himself a strong supporter of intervention in Lebanon.

There is no sign of any revulsion over the attack on Qana among Israelis, who see the operation as a whole as defensive. No Israelis, either civilian or military, have been killed since it started 10 days ago. A poll showed 89 per cent saying Grapes of Wrath would not affect the way they voted.

The only withdrawal of support for Mr Peres is among the Israeli-Arab community, 14 per cent of the electorate, whose total support he will need at the polls in six weeks time if he is to win.

Mr Peres may not get what he wanted from Grapes of Wrath but he does need to make good, at least until after the election, on his pledge that Katyusha rockets will stop falling. A Hizbollah official in Beirut said yesterday: "What is important is returning to the July 1993 understandings and having guarantees that the Israeli aggression would not be repeated. Otherwise, our rockets will be the best reply." Israeli intelligence was reported yesterday as admitting that Hizbollah has lost a maximum of 20 men and the buildings attacked by Israel were empty.

An Israeli commentator notes that Yitzhak Rabin used to say that as a rule you could tell the loser in any war between Israel and the Arabs by looking at who called for a ceasefire first. By this token the outcome of Grapes of Wrath is likely to be a defeat for Israel.

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