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Israel Finds its Options Limited In Southern Lebanon Clashes

By Tracy Wilkinson

With elections ahead of them and a graveyard of failed Lebanon policies behind them, senior Israeli officials must tread carefully as they strike back at Hezbollah guerrillas waging a war of attrition against the Jewish state.

Military and political constraints are so far dictating a cautious response to an upsurge in Hezbollah ambushes that killed seven Israelis in less than a week, including the Israeli army’s highest-ranking commander in southern Lebanon.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his senior Cabinet ministers and military aides announced on Sunday night a “land, sea and air” campaign to deliver harsh retaliation to the Syrian-backed Islamic forces. The retaliation, while fierce and swift, has also been limited in scope.

The problem facing Netanyahu is twofold, and has left the government without clear options.

Israel’s occupation of a nine-mile strip of southern Lebanon is supposed to protect civilians in adjacent northern Israel from Hezbollah attacks. But for more than 20 years, no government has been able to extricate itself from southern Lebanon. And with a close election for prime minister and parliament scheduled for May 17, the time does not seem ripe for courageous -- and politically risky -- initiatives.

Netanyahu often acts in a way that is not wholly predictable. But a range of analysts and officials said Monday that it was unlikely he would launch an all-out military offensive as he fights for re-election, in part because of chances such an action would backfire.

Former Prime Minister Shimon Peres of the Labor Party opened the so-called Grapes of Wrath campaign in southern Lebanon just weeks before the 1996 election. Fighting ended in the calamitous shelling of a refugee camp, killing scores of Lebanese civilians. And Peres narrowly lost the election after Israeli Arabs and some traditional leftist supporters abandoned him in disgust.

Lebanon was a sticky trap that sucked Peres in. Netanyahu undoubtedly keeps that experience in mind. Although his political constituency is far more hawkish than Peres’ and would not reject a show of military might per se, a high body count would be equally unsettling for Netanyahu voters.