Great Decisions '82; The Palestinians: history, politics, and conflict

Winter is a cool, green, lovely season in the Middle East - springtime once removed.

Above Beirut, snow sparkles on mountains that rise from the Mediterranean. The torpor of Cairo abates. Rainwater gushes down the hilly streets of Amman. Clover grows where summer will reclaim the desert.

Early spring can be sweet, too, with its jasmine and orange blossoms. But in every Middle Eastern country this correspondent has visited this winter - and especially in Lebanon - the coming of spring is dreaded.

Perhaps a mid-January Israeli TV news special best reveals what is on people's minds. The show, entitled ''Scenario for Israel's Fifth War,'' went like this:

Sometime soon a terrorist bomb explodes in Haifa, causing civilian casualties. A Palestinian faction claims responsibility. Israel (which has long said it will do so) retaliates with a full-scale invasion of southern Lebanon. Israeli warplanes attack Syrian missile batteries in central Lebanon, drawing Syria into war. Jordan and Iraq send troops to the front out of a sense of Arab solidarity. A full scale Arab-Israeli war ensues.

The press in Beirut and other parts of the Arab world have given the scenario much attention. Diplomats point out that the Israeli news media often reflect formative government policy.

Jerusalem Post correspondent Hirsh Goodman recently reported that Israeli forces seem poised for a major assault on southern Lebanon after the rains end in March. Diplomatic analysts throughout the Middle East concur, adding that:

* Israel would attempt to chase Palestinian forces out of southern Lebanon to protect its northern cities from Palestinian artillery and rocket fire and also to control the vital waters of the Litani River.

* Israeli casualties would be high, but Prime Minister Menachem Begin would be trying to destroy the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) once and for all.

* Fighting between the Maronite Lebanese Phalangists and Palestinians in Beirut would rock the city.

* The PLO would be caught in a pincer, forced to fight for its very existence. Knowing this, the PLO has greatly increased the number and quality of its weapons in southern Lebanon. One recent report estimated that during the past three months the Soviet Union had channeled $50 million worth of equipment into southern Lebanon for PLO use.

Many well-informed, nonalarmist diplomats hold this view. They argue that Mr. Begin was pursuing this same goal - a knockout blow to the PLO - last summer when he sent Israeli jets to bomb PLO headquarters in Beirut. American-Saudi mediation stopped the fighting July 24. But since then Israeli leaders frequently have stated that they are prepared to carry through with the plan.

By breaking the PLO, says a knowledgeable Western diplomat, Mr. Begin would be in a position to draw moderate Arabs in the occupied territories into an Israeli-dominated ''autonomy'' agreement. If he acts before April 25, he would force Egypt into the difficult position of either reacting and jeopardizing the return of Sinai, or keeping quiet and losing face with the Arab world Egypt seeks to move closer to.

All that is stopping the scenerio from being enacted, diplomats say, is American pressure on Israel and PLO control over the headstrong guerrilla groups of Lebanon.

(Mr. Begin assured President Reagan in a Jan. 20 letter that there will be no Israeli move into southern Lebanon unless there is ''clear provocation'' from Syrian or Palestinian forces.)

Distressing diplomats at this juncture, however, is the appearance of no operative, positive alternatives in the Middle East to desperation and war.

The Arab world is disunited, unable even to agree on the eight-point plan of Saudi Crown Prince Fahd. And the one existing diplomatic mechanism for peace and possible Palestinian ''self-determination'' - Camp David - seems to be winding down.

In recent visits to Egypt, Jordan, Israel, and Lebanon, this correspondent discovered little optimism among Arab leaders.

US Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. spent two weeks in January shuttling between Tel Aviv and Cairo, seeking enough common ground between Egypt and Israel to draft a ''declaration of principles'' that might serve as a base for some sort of future autonomy plan for the 1.2 million Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza.

But even this agreement to keep talking was not likely to be signed before April 25. After that date, most diplomats believe, Egypt will be under no pressure to negotiate with Israel on the complex autonomy issue. Indeed, Egypt's pragmatic new President, Hosni Mubarak, may well slow the pace of normalization of relations with Israel and attempt to mend fences with Arab neighbors.

An Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon would cause a rapid chill between Israel and Egypt and perhaps even a break in relations. In that case, the diplomatic route to a Palestinian state might be closed off more or less permanently.

In this bleak landscape the PLO possesses several assets. But they come by default and could be lost in a sustained military struggle. They are:

Political. Arab countries recognize the PLO as the ''sole legitimate representative'' of the Palestinian people. The PLO also has yet to recognize the existence of the state of Israel.

Military. PLO guerrilla forces are elusive targets for Israeli military assault and have the ability to harass and bog down an invading army in the rugged terrain of southern Lebanon. But the PLO is developing into a classic army structure as it acquires more forces and more sophisticated weapons.

Institutional. The PLO operates small factories, workshops, and retail outlets in Lebanon. Hospitals; clinics; orphans' schools; social, sports, and folkloric groups come under the PLO umbrella. Palestinian Prof. Rachid Khalidy calls this the ''Palestinian parastate structure.''

Early in 1982 two moderate Palestinian leaders in the occupied territories appeared to question the PLO's political power.

Mayor Elias Freij of Bethlehem warned that the proliferation of Israeli settlements on the West Bank could mean ''in the next 10 years we will be witnessing a Jewish West Bank.'' The PLO, Mr. Freij said, should recognize Israel and negotiate with it.

Mayor Rashad Shawa of Gaza concurred and said the PLO was only a part of the Palestinian people, implying it was not the ''sole legitimate representative.''

PLO criticism caused the mayors to tone down their declarations. The controversy over the Freij-Shawa statements seems to have been over timing more than substance anyway. PLO leader Yasser Arafat has endorsed the Fahd peace plan , which would bargain Arab recognition of Israel for Israeli evacuation of the occupied territories. But the question is which first: Israeli withdrawal or Arab recognition?

Here, the enigmatic figure of Syrian President Hafez Assad enters.

President Assad is believed to object to the Fahd plan because it is virtually certain that the Golan Heights would not be part of the territory-for-recognition deal. (In December, Israel virtually annexed the Golan Heights, putting intense pressure on the United States at the United Nations, prompting a sanctions measure against Israel in the General Assembly, and producing a threat by the US to pull out of the UN.)

The Begin government, however, was adamant about the Golan. And if Syrian territory is not negotiable, Mr. Assad reasons, then why endorse the Fahd plan?

The plan, therefore, probably will fail to achieve pan-Arab support in the foreseeable future.

Nor, for that matter, is there a ''Jordanian option'' on the horizon. Jordanian officials repeatedly have made that clear. King Hussein is determined he will not break ranks with the Arab world and lead an Anwar Sadat-style initiative with Israel. If anything, say diplomats in Amman, the King is more distrustful of Israel now than he has been at any other time since 1967.

Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon still argues that because more than half of Jordan's population is Palestinian, Jordan already is the Palestinian state in the Middle East. The US has rejected this argument, but a diplomat notes that the continual repetition of the assertion by Mr. Sharon ''may begin to have an effect in the West. And it drives the Jordanians up a wall.''

With all this maneuvering around the Palestinian question, it is easy to see why PLO officials in Beirut seem to be boxed in. Beirut is where a bold diplomatic step could be taken. Beirut is where the war could occur.

In west Beirut's hodgepodge of shops, homes, and storefront guerrilla posts is a building in which Hebrew newspapers and journals are translated all day long. An official with the Palestine research center observes:

''They (the Israelis) think we don't hear what they're talking about because they're talking in Hebrew. But they are talking about an invasion. Let them come. They will see what Vietnam was like.''

The official describes himself as a moderate. He supports the Fahd plan. He admits Israel is here to stay - ''but for now we must plan carefully.''Not many blocks away in his office on the magnificently situated seaside campus of American University, Professor Khalidy says:''If you look at the social services , the political stature, the growing strength of our military, then I would say that the Palestinian cause is more advanced today than it ever has been. Our soldiers fought a sustained war against Israel for 10 continuous days last summer and held them back.

''We now have a PLO call-up for six months for young Palestinians from all over the Middle East. It acts as a tool for political socialization, much as the Israeli Army has. We are growing by leaps and bounds.''

And finally, in his office near where Israeli planes hit July 17, PLO spokesman Mahmoud Labadi considers the near-term prospects for the PLO.

''Israel will try to invade. Maybe they will hurt us. But in the long run, they will hurt themselves. There is a slow change in public opinion even in the United States. No one will love Israel.''

It's slow change Mr. Labadi talks about. No radical departure for the PLO. Thus no major change in status for the Palestinians of the West Bank, Gaza, and the Arab world diaspora. Instead, there seems to be a concerted effort to brace themselves for the storm they think is certain to come.

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