'Israel Should Toughen Stance Before Leaving Lebanon'

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:08 PM EDT

Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Israel is not sending a strong enough message to Lebanon, Syria, and the Hizballah militia that it will respond decisively to any violence following its withdrawal from southern Lebanon.

This is the view of opposition Likud Party leader Ariel Sharon, a former defense minister and key figure in Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

Sharon's advisor told CNSNews.com that, if Israel withdraws its troops from south Lebanon by July without an agreement, it needs to leave behind a strong deterrent impression.

That message should not just be for Hizballah, the advisor said, but for the Syrian and Lebanese governments, too.

If Israel did not give a "very harsh message now," it would give the impression upon withdrawal that it was "folding and running away" from Hizballah, the advisor added.

Sharon has long favored a unilateral withdrawal from Israel's self-declared "security zone."

Speaking to reporters in Katzrin on the Golan Heights, the Likud leader said Israel should have changed its rules of engagement, giving its troops the freedom to retaliate for Hizballah attacks against its forces and those of its ally, the South Lebanese Army.

Israel has pledged to withdraw its 1,500-man force based in south Lebanon to the international border by July.

Both Israel and the US had hoped that the troop pullout would come as the result of an agreement with Lebanon and Syria, which controls Beirut's foreign policy.

But the collapse of Israeli-Syrian talks thwarted hopes for an agreement that Israel had hoped would secure its northern border.

Hizballah has warned that Israel's withdrawal would not be uneventful, and that it would continue its struggle against the Jewish state even after a pullout.

Fierce fighting has continued almost daily in the security zone of late, and several Katyusha rockets have landed on the Israeli side of the border.

Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Shaul Mofaz warned again this week that Israel's response to any cross-border attacks once it withdraws from Lebanon would be harsh.

"The moment we redeploy along the border with Lebanon and we get out of Lebanese territory and enemy actions continue," Mofaz said in radio interview, "then I will propose we retaliate with all the might of the IDF [Israeli army]."

But Sharon says that words are not enough. They must be followed by action before Israel leaves Lebanon.

Israel must give a "hard message [now] to demonstrate what it will do if attacks continue [after a withdrawal]," his advisor said.

An Israeli Arab lawmaker, Azmi Bishara, visiting Damascus at the invitation of Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Shara, said in a radio interview on Tuesday that an Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon without an agreement would be dangerous.

Israeli-UN Talks

Meanwhile, Israel is moving ahead with its withdrawal plans. A special ministerial security cabinet is scheduled to meet on Thursday to discuss preparations.

Special UN Middle East envoy Terje Larson will meet Barak's national security advisor Danny Yatom after the Passover holiday to discuss Israel's redeployment, the prime minister's office told CNSNews.com.

Larson will subsequently meet with leaders in Damascus and Beirut.

The UN last week formally accepted Israel's proposal to withdrawal, stating that "cooperation by all parties concerned will be required in order to avoid a deterioration of the situation."