Israel's painful defeat in Lebanon may turn out to be a blessing

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The parallels with Vietnam are irresistible: the retreat of the patron power - then the US, now Israel - the stunningly swift collapse of their client armies, whose long-held positions are suddenly overrun by their guerrilla foes in the space of hours, followed by a flood of collaborators, desperately seeking asylum.

The parallels with Vietnam are irresistible: the retreat of the patron power - then the US, now Israel - the stunningly swift collapse of their client armies, whose long-held positions are suddenly overrun by their guerrilla foes in the space of hours, followed by a flood of collaborators, desperately seeking asylum.

Make no mistake: Israel's accelerating withdrawal from south Lebanon is a humiliation comparable in its way to America's last exit from Saigon more than a quarter of a century ago. Ehud Barak, the courageous Prime Minister, rightly says the pull-out signifies the end of "an 18-year tragedy" in which hundreds of Israeli soldiers have died. But it is also a painful national defeat, the acknowledgement of the folly of an unwinnable and diplomatically ruinous war. Small wonder that Syria, Lebanon's patron, publicly crows that Israel will never find peace until it withdraws from other occupied Arab territories in the West Bank and the Golan Heights.

However, the true balance sheet is far less clear-cut. The two obvious beneficiaries are the Hizbollah movement, its political prestige at new heights after victory in the field, and, surely, the state of Lebanon. At last, one of the foreign armies on its soil is gone; thousands of Lebanese citizens are reclaiming homes and land from which Israel drove them two decades ago. The country will be both whole and - once the Israelis have departed - theoretically wholly at peace for the first time since 1975.

The lecturing from Damascus, however, must mask mixed feelings on the part of President Assad. Yes, the Jewish state has received a bloody nose, but Syria's longer-term position may be much weakened. Once, south Lebanon and the return of the Golan were umbilically linked pieces of the Middle East puzzle. Now, Mr Assad will no longer be able with impunity to unleash a client Hizbollah to step up pressure on Israel over the Golan Heights. If Syria stokes up future Hizbollah attacks from Lebanon against targets in Israel proper, they will be countered by reprisals, not only against Hizbollah, but against Syrian bases in Lebanon, or Syria proper. This time the world will be less quick to blame the Jewish state and, as President Assad knows well, in any military showdown between Syria and Israel, he will not be the winner.

So for Israel, too, defeat in Lebanon is probably a blessing. Right now, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, as its forces retreat under fire, its enemies gloat, and Hizbollah triumphantly raises its flag over liberated villages, that blessing comes heavily disguised. But if Mr Barak holds his nerve, his reward will be a stronger bargaining position with Syria over the Golan. Which leaves the problem at the core of the Arab-Israeli dispute: the Palestinians.

Perhaps the biggest danger now is not of an uncontrollable escalation of violence in south Lebanon - which would serve nobody's interests - but of a collapse of negotiations with the Palestinians, fast approaching their own deadline in September. These talks were already on ice following new violence on the West Bank. Smarting from the Lebanese humiliation, Israel will now be even less inclined to make concessions; emboldened by Hizbollah's success ,the Palestinians will be more demanding. It is vital that the ending of one tragedy in Lebanon does not help bring about another.

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