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Wednesday, 24 May, 2000, 12:59 GMT 13:59 UK
Analysis: Death knell for Mid-East peace?
Hezbollah flag
Hoisting Hezbollah's flag: What regional repercussions?
By Middle East analyst Roger Hardy

Israel's hasty withdrawal from Lebanon has come at a moment when the Arab-Israeli peace process is already in severe difficulty.

There can be little doubt that Ehud Barak, the Israeli prime minister, would have preferred to withdraw from southern Lebanon in the context of a peace agreement with Lebanon's real master, Syria.

Ehud Barak: The withdrawal is a dangerous gamble
There would then have been a much better chance of a gradual and orderly pullback. And progress in Lebanon could have served as the prelude to an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan heights - the territory Syria wants back as the price of peace.

Mr Barak and US President Bill Clinton seem to have pinned their hopes on the Geneva summit in March.

Most analysts shared their expectation that the summit would lead to the resumption of the Israeli-Syrian peace talks broken off in January.

Mr Barak felt he had to go ahead - despite the misgivings of his generals

But these hopes were dashed, leaving the Americans fuming over Syrian stubbornness - and Mr Barak without the option of a negotiated withdrawal from Lebanon.

A withdrawal was always going to be risky. Now it was a dangerous gamble.

But having promised the Israeli voters last year that he would bring the troops home from Lebanon, Mr Barak felt he had to go ahead - despite the misgivings of his generals.

A new Arab mood

As Israelis worry over whether their northern settlements still face a military threat, Arab leaders have other concerns.

Hezbollah jubilation
Hezbollah jubilation: Arabs will see them as military victors
They are uncomfortably aware of the triumphalist mood among many of their people.

Arabs are applauding what they regard as the military victory of Hezbollah, the Lebanese guerrilla group which has mercilessly harried the Israelis from its bases in south Lebanon.

The new mood is scarcely conducive to peacemaking.

Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, must be particularly conscious that such a mood makes it even harder for him to make significant concessions to Israel.

The current peace talks, designed to produce an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement by September, are already proving extremely difficult.

If Mr Arafat were to give in to Israeli demands on such sensitive issues as Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees, his weakness would be compared unfavourably with Hezbollah's unwavering commitment to armed struggle.

In the short term, the main uncertainty is whether Israel's retreat will trigger fresh conflict - whether in Lebanon or in the West Bank.

Renewed violence would damage, perhaps even kill off, a fragile peace process.

The Syrian enigma

A key factor will be how Syria responds to Mr Barak's very public challenge.

Lebanon celebrations
The celebrations in Lebanon will affect the Arab mood across the region
The Israeli prime minister has deprived Syria of his Lebanese bargaining chip, in an obvious attempt to marginalise Syria's regional influence.

Even if the situation on the Israeli-Lebanese border remains reasonably calm - which would be some sort of miracle - the immediate prospects for the peace process are not bright.

Bill Clinton wants to leave office as the man who brought peace to the Middle East. If he and his tireless mediator Dennis Ross can somehow rescue the peace process, it will be a remarkable feat of US diplomacy.

If he cannot, he runs the risk that he will bequeath a troubled and troublesome Middle East to his successor in the White House.

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