Israeli forces were massing in south Lebanon at the end of June in what the Beirut government sees as preparations for a major military operation. The increased tensions in Lebanon come against the background of a breakdown in Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations, punctuated by Israeli expressions of concern at Syria’s military strength.
US Secretary of State Warren Christopher has delayed a shuttle tour of the Middle East that was expected to take place in late June because of the impasse in the Syria-Israel peace talks.
The latest Israeli operations involved a series of air raids against Lebanese Hezbollah forces on 21 June, the day after three Israeli soldiers were killed in south Lebanon in a Hezbollah ambush. The Lebanese group has vowed to maintain the intensity of its resistance operations so as to avenge the deaths of 45 of its recruits in a major Israeli operation on 2 June.
Israeli officials have made clear that they regard Syria as ultimately responsible for attacks on Israeli forces in Lebanon. Israel has now added to these concerns by pointing to the military threat posed by Syrian surface- to-surface missiles. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin told a gathering of international Jewish leaders in Jerusalem on 22 June that ‘the enemies of Israel still possess a military option’. He added that Syria’s missile arsenal made the Iraqi attacks on Israel during the Gulf war seem like ‘child’s play’. His statement came one week after Syria signed a series of military agreements with Russia that are expected to lead to renewed Russian weapons supplies.
The US has reaffirmed its commitment to trying to secure a global peace settlement. But it is focusing its attention for now on supporting the recent progress in the Jordanian-Israeli part of the process. King Hussain visited Washington on 21-22 June, and said that he hoped a meeting will soon be possible at the highest level between Jordanian and Israeli officials.
Christopher said the Jordanian-Israeli talks show that ‘there is room for very real progress in the Middle East’. However, he told reporters on 20 June that he had no immediate plans to visit the region.
The talks between the Palestinians and Israel are set to resume at the end of June, the first time since the Palestinians took control of the self-rule area. Nabil Shaath, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said on 19 June that talks will restart on 27 June and will be held alternately in Gaza and Jerusalem, the official Egyptian news agency MENA reported. The announcement followed a two-hour meeting with his Israeli counterpart, Major General Amnon Shahaq. The two negotiators also discussed the release of the 5,000 Palestinian prisoners in accordance with the Cairo signed on 4 May. Israel has so far released about 3,500 prisoners.