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Lebanese Leader Refuses Peace Until Israel Progresses with Syria

By Norman Kempster
Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON

Prime Minister Rafik Hariri of Lebanon on Thursday ruled out any step by his government to revive stalled Arab-Israeli negotiations, declaring that the Lebanese will never make peace with Israel until the Syrians do.

In Washington for meetings Friday with President Clinton, Hariri made it clear that his government will follow where Syria leads, asserting that the differences between Israel and Syria must be addressed first because they "are much more important and much more strategic" than the issues that separate Lebanon and Israel.

"Neither Syria nor Lebanon will sign a peace treaty with Israel without the other," Hariri said.

Although no one in the Clinton administration expected Lebanon to challenge Syria - its larger and stronger neighbor - on strategy for dealing with Israel, the uncompromising tone of Hariri's remarks came as a surprise.

Some officials in both Israel and the United States had hoped for progress in the less complicated Israel-Lebanon negotiations to provide momentum that might carry over to discussions between Israel and Syria.

In a speech to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, Hariri, a wealthy businessman, also said his government will do nothing to rein in Hezbollah, the fundamentalist Islamic movement blamed for terrorist attacks on Israeli targets, until Israel withdraws from its self-declared "security zone" in southern Lebanon. Israel has said it will not withdraw until it reaches a peace agreement with Lebanon.

"When there is an occupation, the occupation creates resistance," he said in reference to the Hezbollah guerrillas. "You cannot ask any government to disarm this resistance, as (long) as the occupation is there."

Despite Hariri's tacit admission that Syria controls Lebanon's approach to the peace process, Secretary of State Warren Christopher indicated that the administration is ready to approve Lebanon's request for helicopters, armored personnel carriers and other military equipment.

"We are anxious to assist," Christopher said as he welcomed Hariri to meetings at the State Department.

But Christopher rejected the top item on Hariri's list, ruling out an early end to a ban on most travel by Americans to Lebanon. The ban was imposed during the long, bitter Lebanese civil war when Beirut became almost synonymous with terrorism and hostage taking.

"We would like to remove that travel ban just as soon as security conditions permit," Christopher said. "We have the matter under regular periodic review (and) are very hopeful that it can be removed at some time in the future. But it really depends on a very careful appraisal of the security situation because, above all things, we need to be prudent in this matter."

Hariri argued that Lebanon is now safe for travelers. He said 60,000 Americans, taking advantage of a loophole, have visited Lebanon in the last three years. Still, he said, the ban impedes access by U.S. businessmen to the Lebanese market, which appears to be stabilizing.

Referring to U.S. efforts to sell Boeing aircraft to Lebanon's Middle East Airlines, which is prohibited from landing in the United States because of the travel ban, Hariri said: "I'd like to buy Boeing airplanes, but what if one of those planes got homesick?"