Israel Set to Quit Divided Lebanon Border Town

Source: PM to declare desire to pull out from northern section of Ghajar, following U.S. pressure.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is likely to announce this week that Israel is interested in withdrawing from the northern part of the village of Ghajar on the border with Lebanon.

A senior political source in Jerusalem said on Saturday that Netanyahu wants to respond to the American request on the matter; the move would also be a goodwill gesture to the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora ahead of Lebanese parliamentary elections in early June.

The withdrawal from the northern part of the village is not expected to take place before the Lebanese elections because of the high number of petitions village residents are expected to file with the High Court of Justice against the pullback.

Ghajar was annexed in 1981 and its residents are Israeli citizens. But after the Israel Defense Forces' withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, the UN said the border between Lebanon and Syria runs through the village.

Nonetheless, Netanyahu hopes to issue an announcement on the matter to bolster moderates in Lebanon before his trip to Washington, scheduled for May 17.

The security-political cabinet is likely to meet on Wednesday to discuss the issue, with an announcement after the meeting on the new Israeli government's intentions to carry out the withdrawal.

The pullback would be done in line with UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the Second Lebanon War, as well as a series of arrangements on security and civil issues that Israel had been negotiating with the UN and Lebanon since November last year.

During his visit to Israel two weeks ago, U.S. envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell raised the issue of Ghajar in talks with Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Mitchell asked that Israel carry out the withdrawal as promised when Ehud Olmert was prime minister.

The Americans have been pressuring Israel over the past year to withdraw, arguing that this does not constitute a gesture but part of an Israeli commitment under Resolution 1701.

The Americans say an Israeli withdrawal from Ghajar or a declaration of intent before the elections in Lebanon will bolster the moderate camp there.

The Israeli political source said Ghajar is high on Netanyahu's agenda, both because of the U.S. position and the Lebanese vote.

"Everyone is aware of the narrow timescale," the source said. "Therefore, first a statement in principle on Israel's position, to be followed by practical action on the ground soon after."

A Western diplomat involved in the matter said Netanyahu and Barak are both interested in resolving the issue quickly. The prime minister would like to make a decision before his departure for Washington later this month to be seen by the U.S. president as someone "who can deliver the goods and carry out diplomatic moves."

According to the Israeli source, "the idea of offering a goodwill gesture ahead of the [Lebanese] elections is obvious, but a debate is underway ... on how best to do it, and a decision will be made this week."

A critical issue is how to carry out the withdrawal while ensuring that the moderates and not Hezbollah reap the public-relations benefits. Israel wants to ensure that a deal is signed with the Lebanese government under UN auspices to signal that Hezbollah was not involved.