Israel Watches Lebanon Hopefully

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Israel's foreign minister is hoping for peace with Lebanon (search) in the wake of popular protests in Beirut demanding that Syria leave after decades of occupation, while others warn that a Syrian exit could destabilize the country.

On Tuesday, a top Lebanese opposition leader dampened Israeli enthusiasm, saying flatly that there will be no Israel-Lebanon peace treaty.

Many said that Israel, with its long history of meddling in Lebanese affairs, should stay on the sidelines.

"Israel's role is to keep its head down as far as possible," said Martin Kramer, a Mideast analyst at Tel Aviv University (search).

Israel withdrew its troops from southern Lebanon in 2000 after an 18-year presence. It started with a full-scale invasion and an attempt to install a pro-Israel government — foiled when Israel's ally, President-elect Bashir Gemayel (search), was killed in an explosion in his headquarters in 1982, attributed by most to Syria.

Israel remained mired in Lebanon in a bloody guerrilla war that still traumatizes the Jewish state.

With the anti-Syria protests in Beirut, some Israelis are again turning optimistic about their northern neighbor.

"This is a most important development, its something we have been hoping for," Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom told Army Radio.

Lebanese opposition groups are being careful to identify with pan-Arab goals and are wary of being identified with the United States, much less Israel.

Opposition leader Walid Jumblatt told Al-Jazeera television station he prefers a truce with Israel rather than a peace treaty. "Peace with Israel harms Lebanon. We don't want that," he said.

Shalom and other Israeli officials expressed unequivocal support for the Lebanese opposition and what their protest could mean for Israel.

"I think there is a real wish by the Lebanese people to free themselves from Syrian occupation. I hope freedom from Syrian occupation will give them freedom and independence and the possibility of maybe holding a dialogue with the state of Israel," Shalom told Army Radio in a telephone interview during a visit to Budapest.

"We have no dispute with Lebanon, no dispute about territory, no economic dispute. The only reason that they are not at peace with us is because they were occupied by the Syrians," he said.

Syrian President Bashar Assad this week linked a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon to guarantees of an Israeli-Syrian peace deal. "It (a withdrawal from Lebanon) will only happen if we obtain serious guarantees. In one word: peace," he told the Italian newspaper La Repubblica.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has repeatedly demanded that Syria — Israel's arch-enemy — leave Lebanon. His position stands in contrast to some previous Israeli leaders, including the late Yitzhak Rabin, who had acquiesced to the Syrian presence as a guarantor of stability in the fractious country.

In failed Mideast talks in the 1990s, it was understood that an Israeli-Syrian peace deal would have to precede an agreement between Israel and Lebanon. Israel already has peace accords with its two other neighbors, Jordan and Egypt.

Syria insists that in exchange for peace, Israel leave the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau it captured in the 1967 Mideast war. Sharon has brushed aside Assad's recent peace overtures, apparently because he is unwilling to pay the territorial price at a time when he is set to leave Gaza and parts of the West Bank.

British journalist Patrick Seale, an expert on Syria, said Syria feels it cannot allow Lebanon to conclude a separate peace with Israel. "The Syrians ... feel they are being sidelined, excluded, and they very much want to be included," Seale told Israel Army Radio on Tuesday.

If Syria leaves Lebanon, it also loses its leverage against Israel — the Shiite Muslim guerrilla group Hezbollah, which still carries out occasional cross-border attacks on Israeli forces in a disputed area near the border, despite Israel's withdrawal in 2000 behind a U.N-drawn line. Israel accuses Syria of using Hezbollah in a low-level proxy war.

Israeli commentators said even if Lebanon were to become independent, there is no guarantee it would rush into a peace deal with Israel. At best, Lebanon might "exit the circle of hostility," and agree to a long-term arrangement of non-belligerence with Israel, he said.

However, a Syria exit could also have the opposite result.

"Lebanon could enter a period of instability," warned Itamar Rabinovich, a former Israeli negotiator with Syria. "Syria's presence (in Lebanon) is oppressive, but it also guarantees basic stability."

In renewed political turmoil in Lebanon, the Iranian-sponsored Hezbollah could have freer rein to try to disrupt Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts, commentators said.

Israeli Vice Premier Shimon Peres chose to see the upside Tuesday. "This is good for the entire Middle East, that Lebanon stop being subjected to occupation from the outside, by Syria, and the occupation from within, by Hezbollah," he told Israel Radio.