A four-month coincidence? The Lebanon withdrawal and the Second Intifada

While then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak downplayed the connection between the two events, officials who were deeply involved in diplomatic events at the time do connect the dots.

THEN-PRIME MINISTER Ehud Barak (left) attends a dinner hosted by US president Bill Clinton (second from right), with US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright (second from left) and Syrian foreign minister Farouq al-Shara, during talks at Shepherdstown, West Virginia, in January 2000 (photo credit: REUTERS)
THEN-PRIME MINISTER Ehud Barak (left) attends a dinner hosted by US president Bill Clinton (second from right), with US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright (second from left) and Syrian foreign minister Farouq al-Shara, during talks at Shepherdstown, West Virginia, in January 2000
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The headline on May 24, 2000 in The Guardian, a paper not known as particularly friendly to Israel, told the tale: “Chaos and humiliation as Israel pulls out of Lebanon.”
The prime minister at the time, Ehud Barak, the architect of the unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon some 18 years after Israel launched Operation Peace for Galilee, had hoped it would happen in a very different way.
Two years prior, campaigning for his 1999 election against then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Barak had promised a withdrawal from Lebanon within a year of coming into office. This promise followed the helicopter disaster that killed 73 soldiers being ferried into Lebanon, and as the Four Mothers anti-war protests picked up steam. His message resonated with a public increasingly weary of the cost of the seemingly endless war in Lebanon and looking for a way out.
A fan of big, brash moves, not only did Barak propose to withdraw all the troops from Lebanon, but he also promised to negotiate a permanent status deal with the Palestinians – skipping over various interim steps.
Barak, the former head of the Sayeret Matkal (the IDF General Staff Reconnaissance Unit), was nothing if not bold and daring. He was hell-bent either on making peace with Israel’s enemies through dramatic steps, or “pulling back the curtain” so the whole world could see that while Israel showed a willingness to take giant steps toward moving peace forward on various fronts, there was no partner on the other side.
And the withdrawal from Lebanon on May 24 was a result of the realization that, at least regarding Syria, there really was no partner on the other side.
Just six months after coming into power in July 1999, talking initially with and about the Palestinians before shifting gears to a Syria-first policy, Barak met with the Syrians at Shepherdstown, West Virginia, in the hope that a deal could transpire with Syrian president Hafez Assad, terminally ill at the time and represented by his foreign minister, Farouk a-Shara. Barak hoped such a deal would then facilitate and make possible a withdrawal from Lebanon.

IT DIDN’T work out that way. Assad’s representative didn’t budge at Shepherdstown, and Assad himself did not move when he met then-US president Bill Clinton in Geneva some three months later. A deal was not in the cards, which meant that if Barak was committed to leaving Lebanon – as he promised the public – he would be doing it unilaterally, without a deal.
In an interview last month with Maariv, Barak said that he met with then chief-of-staff Shaul Mofaz shortly after his government was established.
“I made it clear to him that if there will be an agreement with the Syrians, it is reasonable to think that the Lebanon issues would also be solved through an agreement. But even if there will not be an agreement, I am determined to leave Lebanon by July 2000.”
And leave by then he did.
But rather than doing so in an orderly fashion, it was done overnight and in a chaotic manner, as Hezbollah had overrun positions Israel had handed over to the Southern Lebanon Army (SLA).
Barak wanted to avoid the perception that Israel was leaving Lebanon under fire, and – as The Guardian reported at the time – “badly wanted an orderly withdrawal with an expanded United Nations peacekeeping force taking control of border areas. But with the SLA in disarray, a refugee influx that has taken the government by surprise and the rapid arrival of Hezbollah well before Israel has had time to complete its electrified border fence and other defences, that prospect has evaporated.”
In a word, the withdrawal was a mess.
BARAK, WROTE veteran US diplomat and Mideast negotiator Dennis Ross in his book The Missing Peace, understandably “sought to make withdrawal look like Israel’s decision, made out of strength and conviction. But Hezbollah had other ideas.”
Ross wrote that while on a logistical level, carrying out the withdrawal in 20 hours when things started to look bad was “another source of pride” for the IDF, in the region “particularly given the collapse of the SLA, the withdrawal looked like a defeat.”
Barak admitted that tactical mistakes in carrying out the withdrawal might have been made.
“These types of tactical errors could happen as well to good people, and I take full responsibility,” he told Maariv. “We paid the price in unpleasant headlines and photographs. But [of] what [importance] is that in the face of ending a tragedy that lasted 18 years. And without any wounded!”
What importance?
All of a sudden, Ross wrote, “there was a new model for dealing with Israel: the Hezbollah model. Don’t make concessions. Don’t negotiate, Use violence. And the Israelis will grow weary and withdraw.”
While Barak had hoped that the withdrawal would put an end to the bloodletting in Lebanon and show that Israel would take matters into its own hands and not remain anyone’s hostage, the message that reverberated throughout the region was starkly different.
Israel, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah said in his victory speech on May 26 at Bint Jbeil, less than 48-hours days after the IDF withdrawal, is an easily defeatable “spider web.”
“We offer this noble Lebanese model to our people in Palestine,” Nasrallah declared. “To free your land, you don’t need tanks, a strategic balance, rockets, and cannons; you need to follow the way of the past self-sacrifice martyrs who disrupted and horrified the coercive Zionist entity. You, the oppressed, unarmed and restricted Palestinians, can force the Zionist invaders to return to the places they came from. Let the Falasha go to Ethiopia, and let the Russian Jews return to Russia.
“The choice is yours, and the model lies right in front of your eyes,” he continued. “An honest and serious resistance can make the freedom dawn arise. Our brothers and beloved Palestinians, I tell you: Israel, which owns nuclear weapons and the strongest war aircraft in the region, is feebler than a spider’s web – I swear to God.”
Nasrallah’s message to the Palestinians who had engaged for the previous seven years in long, drawn-out negotiations with Israel was loud and clear: Don’t waste your time, just blow hard on the spider web – and it will disappear.
And there were definitely those who heard that message. Four months later, on September 28, the Palestinians launched the Second Intifada.
IN A PBS documentary in the spring of 2002 called Shattered Dreams of Peace: The Road from Oslo, Mohammed Dhalan, who was the Palestinian security chief at the time, said the minute the Palestinians saw Israeli soldiers “running away and allowing the Lebanese to liberate themselves, they ask, ‘Why don’t we do it their way?’”
In the same documentary, Israeli negotiator Uri Savir quoted Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qurei as saying to him after the withdrawal from Lebanon, “The message to every Palestinian will be clear: Kill and get the land.”
An article last week in Makor Rishon cited a survey of Palestinian public opinion quoted in a 2010 book by the pollsters Yaakov Shamir and Khalil Shikai, Public Opinion in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: The Public Imperative During the Second Intifada, that “as a result of the unilateral withdrawal from southern Lebanon, 63% of the Palestinians believed that they needed to adopt the violent methods of Hezbollah.
“For the first time, the Palestinian public totally lost confidence in diplomacy, and was willing to adopt violence as an alternative means to ending the occupation,” they wrote. “The young militants wanted to force Israel to withdraw unilaterally from the occupied territory, like what happened in southern Lebanon in May 2000.”
Barak, however, still cautions against drawing a connection between the two events.
“And those who think that leaving Lebanon strengthened the Palestinians, I say, if we had stayed in Lebanon and continued to bleed without contributing to our security, then what? The Palestinians would have raised a white flag? Gotten on their knees and begged for mercy?
“No. On the contrary, had we stayed in Lebanon and kept a force there of a division or more, it would have been difficult to effectively carry out Operation Defensive Shield [in 2002, the turning point in the intifada].”
While Barak downplayed the connection between the two events, officials who were deeply involved in diplomatic events at the time do connect the dots.
“In a textbook case of unintended consequences, the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon fostered an environment supporting increased radicalism, not moderation,” Ross wrote. “Hezbollah was celebrated for forcing the Israelis out. Resentment toward the Israelis, the West, the ‘haves,’ spilled out and expressed itself. The latent desire to humiliate those who humiliated the Arabs was once again apparent.”
And Yasser Arafat felt the sucker for negotiating with Israel. He was haggling over deployments and land percentages with but spotty results, while Nasrallah was fighting Israel… and winning.
THEN-US AMBASSADOR to Israel Martin Indyk wrote in his book on the period, Innocent Abroad, that on May 27, the day after Nasrallah’s “spider web” speech, Arafat traveled to Egypt to consult with Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, and “the Egyptians found him deeply troubled by the impact of Hezbollah’s triumphalism.”
Arafat, according to Indyk, “complained bitterly to Mubarak that Nasrallah was exporting his violent ideas to the streets of the West Bank and Gaza.”
Two months after the Lebanon withdrawal, Barak met Arafat at Camp David under Clinton’s watchful eyes. There Barak laid down a peace proposal for the Palestinians whereby they would get about 90% of the territories, administrative control over most of the Arab neighborhoods in east Jerusalem and all the villages surrounding the capital, and joint administration over the holy sites in the city.
Yet it was not enough for the Palestinian leader, who was unwilling to budge from his maximalist demands. And he was influenced in remaining calcified in his positions by seeing what had transpired just two months earlier in Lebanon.
Shlomo Ben-Ami, who at the time was internal security minister and a negotiator at Camp David, said in a Channel 13 television interview in 2017 that Arafat told him at the summit that the Lebanon withdrawal was imprudent.
“Complete foolishness,” Ben-Ami quoted Arafat as saying. “How foolish you were when you left Lebanon unilaterally. There were 500 fighters there … and they managed to throw you out of Lebanon, and here I am negotiating with you.”
In other words, why negotiate, why make concessions, when a small number of fighters forced Israel to withdraw completely to the international border in Lebanon – it made no sense.
Ben-Ami was quoted in Makor Rishon as having written in 2005 that he had “no doubt” that the withdrawal from Lebanon left a “deep impression on Arafat’s consciousness.”
“He felt humiliated and embarrassed that he had to negotiate with us on border changes, while 500 guerrillas forced Israel to withdraw to Lebanon’s international border,” he said. “The Lebanonization of the struggle against Israel, he believed, would break Israel’s will. The lesson he learned from Israel’s defeat in Lebanon was that the Israeli people are worn out and have doubts about its ability to absorb losses in a low-intensity conflict.”
Arafat’s conclusion: launch his own low intensity conflict.
In the 15 years that Israel held the security zone in Lebanon, it lost 559 soldiers, an unsustainable situation that the public in 2000 was no longer willing to tolerate and which Barak was determined to change. Israel needed to withdraw, he concluded.
The question that remains 20 years later for most Israelis is not whether Israel should have left Lebanon – most believe it should have – but rather how it should have done so. Few look at the manner in which that pullback was carried out, and its aftermath, as a model to emulate.