His visit to the United States scuttled, Prime Minister Ehud Barak addressed a Jewish group here via videotape late Sunday, vowing that Israel would complete its withdrawal from southern Lebanon over the next several weeks.
In the meantime, South Lebanon Army soldiers abandoned the Taibeh outpost in the security zone yesterday, only a week after the Israeli army transferred responsibility for the outpost to the SLA as part of its redeployment from Lebanon, according to a Haaretz report Monday.
The incident may force the Israelis to reconsider plan of handing over additional outposts to the SLA as it withdraws from the 22-year occupation in Lebanon.
The recent escalation in Hizbollah attacks makes it more likely that the IDF will speed up its withdrawal, completing the redeployment several weeks or more before the self-imposed July deadline.
In another AFP report Monday, Israel denied widespread media reports that it was planning to bring forward its withdrawal from south Lebanon to as early as June 1.
"There is no order to withdraw from Lebanon on June 1. The Israeli army is preparing for a pullout and it will take place when conditions are right," the defense ministry said in a statement.
Israeli public television reported Sunday that Prime Minister Ehud Barak had instructed the army to be prepared for a pullout from south Lebanon by June 1 because of the escalating violence in south Lebanon.
UN 'READY TO RULE AGAINST' SHEBAA CLAIM
The United Nations is preparing to dismiss Lebanon's claims over the Shebaa Farms in its report on the role of UNIFIL in the upcoming withdrawal, but is expected to demand that Israel dismantle the South Lebanon Army, according to the Lebanese Daily Star.
The paper said Monday the debate over the sovereignty of the Shebaa Farms took a new twist the previous day when Hizbollah staged a rare attack against an Israeli outpost on the edge of the disputed area in the eastern sector of the occupation zone.
The increase in fighting in the south led Israel television to report that Israeli Premier Ehud Barak had ordered the military to be ready for a final pullout by June 1.
"Heavy Hizbollah fire is dictating an early withdrawal ... it will be possible to withdraw in one night on June 1," the report said Sunday night.
AFP said The UN Security Council is set to hear a much-anticipated report Tuesday on Israel's retreat from southern Lebanon, but the situation on the ground could present the United Nations with some seemingly insurmountable difficulties.
"The most serious problems are now well-entrenched, and to fix them on the ground won't be easy for the United Nations," said one diplomat familiar with the issue. "One fears the task could even be beyond the UN's ability."
The preliminary report, based on UN envoy Terje Roed-Larsen's trip around the Middle East, was supposed to be presented May 18 but was delayed. According to a Lebanese official, the delay was due to differences over the Farms of Shebaa, an area occupied by Israel but claimed by Lebanon.
The report will concern the application of UN Resolutions 425 and 426 of 1978, which call for Israel's complete withdrawal from southern Lebanon. According to one western diplomat, the more divisive issues are easy to chart out:
-- Determination of borders
-- The fate of the South Lebanon Army (SLA)
-- Evaluation of the risks of Palestinian groups' attacks on Israel after the retreat from Lebanon, along with the risks of any Israeli response.
"The answers to these problems will depend on the means given to the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) to fulfill its mandate, which is to help implement an Israeli retreat, re-establish security in the zone and restore sovereignty to Lebanon," the diplomat told AFP.
BARAK NOT OPTIMISTIC ABOUT PEACE WITH SYRIA
Barak added in the video address that he is "not optimistic" about reaching a peace accord with Syria. However, he said the door is not yet shut.
"There is still a small opening and we will not be the ones to close it."
Barak, who was to have appeared in person at a dinner for the State of Israel Bonds, cancelled a scheduled trip to the United States Friday after violence intensified in South Lebanon and the Palestinian territories
The increase in hostilities has given a further sense of urgency to Israel’s planned withdrawal from its nine-mile wide security zone there in July.
Violence has also increased in the West Bank and Gaza during the past week, overshadowing Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, although back channel negotiations between the two sides persist in Stockholm, Sweden.
In Barak's absence, former Prime Minister of Israel Shimon Peres, who is the country's current minister of regional cooperation, appeared at the event.
"It looks like the President of Syria doesn’t only want his land (back), he also wants our lake," Peres said, referring to Hafez el-Assad and the disputed eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee.
"We are not going to budge," Peres said.
Barak had been due to leave for Washington overnight Sunday for a meeting with US President Bill Clinton to discuss the peace process, but scuttled those plans after meeting with his top security aides.
His office also said Israel would delay the transfer of three West Bank villages near Jerusalem to full Palestinian control because of the unrest.
However, Barak pledged to continue the back-channel negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians underway in Stockholm aimed at reaching a final peace pact by a September target date, it said – (Several Sources).
© 2000 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)