At 6:45 a.m. local time on May 24, 2000, the last Israeli tank rolled out of Lebanon, and, according to the Associated Press, "Israeli soldiers padlocked the metal barrier behind them." An occupation older than many of the Israeli and Hezbollah combatants, who later that morning stared curiously at one another across a border fence, had died suddenly after a long, agonizing illness.
The images accompanying Israel's hasty exit were striking: Hezbollah fighters receiving the blessing of a Maronite priest; Israelis and Lebanese exchanging souvenirs through the border fence; pro-Israeli Lebanese militiamen lining up to enter Israel or turning themselves in to their erstwhile enemies; Israeli civilians emerging from bomb shelters; Lebanese civilians returning home.
What did not happen in the moments following the collapse of Israel 's south Lebanon security zone was equally remarkable. Lebanese resistance fighters fanning out through the villages of southern Lebanon and taking up positions near the border did so largely without violence. Although the euphoria of sudden victory may have overcome only momentarily a thirst for vengeance, a longing for Jerusalem and the dark reality of conflict between Israel and Syria, one could discern in what was missing from the events of May 24 the faintest outline of hope rising from the wreckage of a bleak, 22-year occupation.
Most important, however, is what actually happened between the writing and the reading of these words. The sudden collapse of the South Lebanon Army (SLA) and the precipitous evacuation of Israeli units created new facts well in advance of their anticipated creation. On May 22, the U.N. secretary-general had submitted to the Security Council a plan for a two-step reinforcement of the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) that would enable it, first, to confirm Israel's withdrawal by marking the border and, second, to take up positions along the border itself. The end would come, shockingly, within 48 hours of Mr. Annan's report.
Time, therefore, is very much of the essence. Although first reports from the border and inside the former security zone are positive, one wonders if those who now control southern Lebanon will give way quickly to UNIFIL and to official Lebanese security forces. Indeed, one wonders if UNIFIL will be allowed to execute its mission and if Lebanon will be permitted to establish a monopoly on armed force south of the Litani River. Failure of the United Nations and the Lebanese government to quickly replace the Lebanese resistance on the frontier would be to run the risk of factional fighting in the villages and provocations along the border. Success or failure to consolidate the south would be the initial answer to the great unknown: How will Syria react? Given Syrian suzerainty in Lebanon, whether Hezbollah facilitates or blocks UNIFIL's mission and whether or not the Lebanese government sends security forces south will result from decisions made in Damascus. Syria, eager to keep the pressure on Israel for total withdrawal from the Golan Heights, might seek a balance: frustrate the full implementation of Resolution 425, but avoid the kinds of provocations that could boomerang. In pursuing such a strategy, however, Syria would be defying the Security Council and running the risk of placing its own security in the hands of some nervous and well-armed young Lebanese and Israelis.
An alternative for Syria might be to recognize that Israel's hasty unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon does not change the balance of power. Instead of having surrogates blocking UNIFIL, Damascus might publicly endorse and facilitate the rapid accomplishment of UNIFIL's mission and the speedy exit of U.N. forces from Lebanon. Wholehearted Syrian cooperation might, at best, jump-start the renewal of Syrian-Israeli peace talks and, at worst, leave Israel face to face with a Syrian dominated Lebanon after the blue helmets have gone.
One way or the other, the necessity of an Israeli-Syrian accommodation remains manifest. From Israel's perspective, Syria's failure to engage in positive public diplomacy made it impossible for Prime Minister Barak to offer a referendum asking voters to endorse a boundary arrangement satisfactory to Syria. In the wake of the traumatic collapse of the security zone and the arrival of Hezbollah to the very gates of Israel, President Hafiz Asad had the opportunity to make a gesture transcending smiles and handshakes. Would he, in advance of a key Baath party meeting scheduled for mid-June, tell the people of Israel that a peaceful Lebanon should and would become the keystone of Syrian-Israeli peace?
Were such a gesture forthcoming, would Israel reciprocate or merely confirm the view in Damascus that withdrawal from Lebanon is a tactic designed to avoid withdrawal from the Golan? Would Syria then decide to reemphasize its importance by inflicting pain, perhaps risking general war? From the perspective of May 24, much has changed but much has not. The prime minister of Israel put his army on the fast track out of Lebanon. Yet two facts remain on the ground: Syria is still in control, and the Syrian-Israeli track of the peace process is on the back burner.
For Lebanon, a second chance for life itself may be at hand. In the days and weeks following the events of May 24, the Lebanese will discover whether their powerful neighbors intend peace or business as usual. If it is the former, one may hope for the peaceful re-emergence of a free, democratic Lebanon, one enjoying a close relationship with Syria as a result of kinship, contiguity and choice. If it is the latter, one may expect explosive reactions from a people - especially perhaps those reclaiming their homes in South Lebanon - no longer willing to be the region's designated victims.