Why did Israel withdraw from Lebanon in 1985?
Israel’s experiences in Lebanon were overwhelmingly negative. After the PLO moved to Lebanon and siezed control of the southern areas from the Lebanese government, the ever growing problem of terrorist attacks on Israel from bases in Lebanon began. But the Litani River Operation in 1978 and the larger invasion of Lebanon in 1982 did not solve the problem, however necessary the operations may have been to stem the tide of attacks. Israel could not rely on its Christian allies in Lebanon to secure the peace and Israel could not bear the human and financial costs of occupation on its own. Therefore, Israel had to reduce its committment and try to work with the United Nations, backed up by guarantees from the United States, on the unending problem of securing Israel’s borders.
In June 1985, Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres ordered a unilateral withdrawal of most of Israel’s troops from Lebanon, leaving only a small residual Israeli force and an Israeli-supported Lebanese militia in a “security zone,” a 15 km wide strip of land paralleling the border which Israel considers a necessary buffer against attacks on its northern territory. Many terrorists on their way to northern Israel have been caught and stopped in the security zone. This security for Israel comes at a price; since 1985, about 300 Israeli soldiers have been killed in the security zone by terrorist groups such as Hezbollah (Party of God).
The preferred alternative to the “security zone” strategy was always a peace agreement between Israel and Lebanon, under the framework provided by UN Security Council Resolution 425. The Resolution did not require Israel to withdraw from Lebanon, as is sometimes claimed by anti-Israel PLO, Syrians and Lebanese. Rather, the resolution was a package of recommendations whose implementation was be the result of negotiations between Israel and Lebanon. If the requirements for security and stability were ever met, then Israel could have been in a position to carry out the withdrawal. The lack of progress towards a peace agreement was caused by Lebanon’s total dependence on Syria, the long history of cross-border attacks staged in south Lebanon, and the constant potential for escalation. Israel instead settled for limited cease-fire agreements and the IDF remained in south Lebanon until May of 2000 when Israel unilaterally withdrew.
After the 1982 Peace for Galilee operation in Lebanon the IDF had to face, on the tactical level, a continued war against terrorism both in Lebanon and within Israel. After the 1985 withdrawal into the security zone, the ongoing war against terrorism included fighting against the PLO, Amal (Lebanese Resistance Detachments) and Hezbollah in extensive areas of Lebanon. After 1987 the struggle against terrorism in South Lebanon was expanded by the simultaneous IDF involvement in the Intifada in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The 1991 Gulf War and the breakup of the Soviet Union had a profound effect on the Middle East. These events influenced the Arab World to reassess its position vis-a-vis Israel and caused Israel to reevaluate its perception of the defense situation and redefine the nature of the strategic threat. Peace finally seemed possible when the Madrid Conference met in 1991.