Unfreezing the Middle East

It is a year today since Israeli forces invaded Lebanon. Yet it cannot be said that the search for peace in the region has advanced much in the aftermath of that tragic, unnecessary war. Indeed diplomacy in the Middle East seems frozen at the moment. It is thus good that the Reagan administration has called its Mideast envoys home for a high-level review on what might and should be done to end the stalemate. The President of the United States needs to move boldly and resolutely to help bring about a genuine peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

The balance sheet of the Lebanese-Israeli conflict is worth a review for the lessons it teaches. Israel probably hoped to achieve a great deal more than it did politically and militarily. If the Begin-Sharon government sought to weaken Syria to a point where it would no longer be a threat and to drive the Palestinian refugees into the East Bank of the Jordan so that Israel could freely absorb the West Bank, it certainly did not gain these objectives. Nor did Israel succeed in installing a pro-Israeli Phalange government in Beirut.

The most that can be said from the Israeli view, perhaps, is that Israel has improved security along its northern borders (especially if the Lebanese-Israeli agreement is carried out) and that the PLO is now in disarray. But the cost to Israel in lives lost has been high and, while Galilee settlements are now out of range of PLO mortars, Israeli soldiers are still being killed in Lebanon.

Was the war worth it? Is peace any closer?

On a wider canvas, the war did serve to get President Reagan involved in the Middle East peace process. If he had gotten involved sooner, of course, he may have prevented the invasion to begin with. But once that conflict was over he at least stepped in vigorously to try to turn the occasion to constructive purpose. The peace initiative which he launched last Sept. 1 was imaginative and far-reaching. It was realistic in that it gave something to each side - the assurance to Israel that there would be no independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and the assurance to the Arabs that Israel would withdraw from occupied territories. The Palestinians, for their part, would be able to form a political entity in the West Bank federated with Jordan.

The plan was worth working on. In October and November of 1982 there was a definite window of opportunity for diplomatic progress: The Russians were on the sidelines. The PLO was shattered. The Arabs were looking to Washington for leadership. Yet somehow the United States failed to use that opportunity to press Israel hard enough as well as the Arabs to negotiate. It did not follow through with the requisite vigor and resolve.

It cannot be said the opportunity for peace is irrevocably lost. Opportunity is always present when there is the moral courage and political will to utilize it. The American envoys surveying the scene now, however, will have to take account of new circumstances. Long ignored by the US, President Assad has strengthened his position with new Soviet arms and made clear that Syrian forces will not easily be budged out of Lebanon. Yasser Arafat is under challenge from PLO dissidents who want him to be more hard-line. Meantime, Mr. Reagan faces an election year during which it will take a high order of statesmanship to surmount pro-Israeli domestic pressures.

The challenge before the US is large. It should not want to await another crisis before giving the Middle East the highest priority and putting all its resources behind a strong, unrelenting diplomatic effort to unfreeze the present situation. Lebanon needs to be restored whole and independent. Syria needs to be drawn away from the Soviet clutch by solid evidence that the US will help regain Syrian territorial integrity and establish justice for the Palestinians. Israel needs to be persuaded that the path to security and an enduring peace lies not through violence and territorial aggrandizement but through a humane regard for the rights of its dispossessed neighbors - even if this entails a risk.

Will the United States rise to the challenge?

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