As yet another Israeli soldier was killed Sunday on Lebanese soil, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought to halt the growing call for Israel to end its costly occupation of southern Lebanon.
The latest death, in a pre-dawn attack on an Israeli army outpost by Iranian-backed Lebanese guerrillas, hit home in a nation still burying the victims of last week’s triple suicide bombings in central Jerusalem and a disastrous Israeli commando raid in Lebanon.
Four people were killed along with the bombers in Thursday’s Jerusalem attack; a few hours later, 12 soldiers died in the botched Lebanon operation.
As the Israeli Cabinet convened to discuss the latest attack and last week’s double blow, politicians from across the spectrum - including such longtime hawks as cabinet minister Ariel Sharon - called on the government to re-examine the Israeli occupation inside Lebanon.
But Netanyahu tried to quell the growing debate, telling his ministers their “rash” discussion of a unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon could provoke further attacks by Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas.
The government insists that Israel must continue to occupy a narrow swath along the Lebanese border to protect northern Israeli communities from cross-border attacks, though the military losses from this operation have far exceeded any harm caused to civilians by rocket attacks or raids.
“I’d be the first to want to leave Lebanon, but I don’t want to leave it in such a way that Lebanon follows me into the north of Israel,” Netanyahu told Fox television in an interview Sunday.
Still, the push for a Lebanon pull-out is growing - and in some surprising quarters.
Sharon - a hard-line former general who spearheaded Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon with thousands of troops and was forced to resign as defense minister after a massacre in Palestinian refugee camps - suggested in a commentary published Sunday that he might support a withdrawal from Lebanon, even without a treaty with Syria.
Syria, with more than 35,000 troops in Lebanon is the main power-broker there and is a key backer of Hezbollah.