U.S., Israel, Arabs maneuver over next step as Mideast reaches major turning point
Beirut — A quick cab ride up the road and one encounters Israeli tanks, jeeps, and soldiers deployed on the hills overlooking Beirut.
Israel's coup -- long predicted, but in the end coming with surprising speed - was complete.
With the Israeli Army in control of Lebanon from the southern border to Beirut International Airport and in the hills surrounding the presidential palace at Baabda, a new political dynamic has begun to operate in this long-anarchic country. The view from Lebanon on June 14 looked like this:
* The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) had been cornered far from Israeli borders, thus ending PLO ability to fire rockets and artillery into northern Israel. With Israeli forces so near, choking off escape routes, guerrillas have fallen back into central Beirut, some establishing themselves for a final stand, others caching weapons and trying to blend in with the populace.
* Syria had been mauled militarily, setting back several years as a military power in the Middle East and giving Syrian President Hafez Assad a political blow that could prove difficult to recover from. How much Syria hopes to recoup in lost military hardware as a result of a visit to Damascus by a top-level Soviet deputy Air Force chief is open to question.
* Israel has linked up with the Christian Phalange forces of northern Lebanon , without the Phalange appearing to be too actively involved in the week-long battle with the PLO that has just transpired.
* The Lebanese govenment has been maneuvered (willingly or unwillingly) into forming a government of ''national salvation'' consisting of most of Lebanon's rival factions except for the Palestinians.
* PLO leaders, who seemed to have succeeded in keeping the Israeli Army at bay, now appear to be trapped. They will either have to disarm, surrender, or face attack by any combination of the following: the Israeli Army, the Phalange, the Lebanese Army. As of June 14 it appeared the Lebanese Army was going to be deployed into west Beirut and the Palestinians were going to be delivered an ultimatum.
''Maybe now the Palestinians will give up,'' Israeli Col. Amos Neeman said as he looked at a Hebrew-lettered map of the country. The colonel was resting along with his armored company in the stone and tile Baabda police station June 14. Lebanese civilians and Army officers were casually fraternizing with the Israeli soldiers.
''I hope for their (the Palestinians') sake,'' Colonel Neeman said, ''they will come to some agreement with the Lebanese government. This must happen.''
In fact, there seemed little choice, given the Israeli Army's surprisingly swift blitz up from the coast into the Baabda hills and into the area of the international airport. Palestinian refugee camps and PLO headquarters buildings were completely dominated by the Israeli Army. All access to Beirut is now through Israeli-controlled territory.
For the PLO, the military option seems finished. Guerrillas could hold out in Beirut for some time and could make their foes destroy most of this part of the city in trying to dislodge them. But eventually supplies would be depleted. And anyway, the military option could not be exercised against Israel from Lebanon, given Israel's occupation of the southern part of the country.
That leaves only a political route to achieving the PLO's goal, which is to establish a state of Palestine in territory Israel now occupies. On the one hand , if PLO leaders survive in the days ahead they may be coerced by Arab leaders to negotiate with Israel for much less than the PLO has heretofore demanded. On the other hand, the injection of radical Palestinians into the populations of other Arab states -- added to the PLO perception that these other Arab states abandoned the PLO during the past week -- could affect the stability of many regimes.
It is likely that many of the 600,000 Palestinians in Lebanon will again be displaced, either internally in Lebanon or to neighboring Arab countries. At the least, this will exacerbate the refugee problems in the Arab world.
For Lebanon, however, the picture does not seem so bleak. This is a moment when there could be a genuine reconciliation between rightist Maronites, leftist Druze, Shiites, Sunnis, and most of the other ethno-religious groups that make up this crazy-quilt country.
The Lebanese flag -- a green cedar tree on a field of white and red -- is being displayed prominently in much of the country. With the de facto powers joining ranks with the Lebanese government of President Elias Sarkis (himself a Maronite), the PLO neutralized, and the Israeli Army guaranteeing the peace, hostilities that have rent this country the past seven years could subside.
That would be a welcome development for most Lebanese. This explains why the Lebanese Army put up only minimal resistance against the Israeli invaders and why Israeli soldiers felt secure lounging on the outskirts of Beirut June 14.
''The people like me are so happy,'' a Greek Orthodox woman said. ''We must be careful not to show it too much. It is still too early.'' (She lives in a predominantly Palestinian part of Beirut.)
Since the ''national salvation'' government is being formed under the shadow of Israeli guns, it is probable that this new government will offer to make peace and normalize relations with the state of Israel. Moreover, this new government will have to guarantee to control the Palestinian refugee population much more than it has the past nine years -- and/or this government will have to let a ''multinational force'' made up of American and Western European troops patrol the country.
For Syria, events of the past week have set it back dramatically as a military power. Western diplomats estimate as much as a quarter of the Syrian Air Force was destroyed in air battles last week. (Israeli jet losses were far fewer.) Syrian ground forces were pushed out of the Western part of the country - and may be told to leave altogether by the new Lebanese government. For Syria's Assad, who has faced serious internal problems recently, Syria's performance in Lebanon could be cast in two ways: either as a military fiasco or as a valiant but futile attempt to slow the Israeli juggernaut.