Given the high level of criticism in the United States of Israel's invasion of Lebanon and the sources of the criticism - including such longtime friends of Israel as Sen. Henry Jackson and other US lawmakers as well as a number of Jewish intellectuals - it is necessary to ask whether or not the criticism has any validity.
There can be little doubt that Israel had the absolute right to launch an attack against the PLO forces located in southern Lebanon. How could Israel, a sovereign state, permit the amassing of long-range artillery by an organization whose covenant calls for Israel's destruction, and which through both a series of vicious terrorist acts and periodic shelling of Israeli border cities and villages demonstrated that it was working to implement the precepts of its covenant?
As for the level of force used to uproot the PLO, the situation is more complex. Whichever estimate of casualties is ultimately accepted, it is clear that the number of civilian dead, wounded, and homeless will run into the thousands. While the number killed will most probably be far fewer than the 70, 000 Lebanese killed in the fighting in Lebanon from the beginning of Lebanon's civil war in 1975 to the Israeli invasion in 1982, even one innocent civilian killed by warring forces is one too many.
Nonetheless, one can legitimately ask whose is the greater sin - the group that hides behind civilians by basing its arms caches, artillery positions, and terrorist training centers amid schools, hospitals, churches, and private homes, or those who, in order to destroy the terrorist forces, must root them out from civilian areas, often destroying the areas in the process. This situation indeed posed a serious moral dilemma for the Israeli Army. Nonetheless, on balance, it may be argued that by far the greater responsibility for the destruction of the civilian regions of Lebanon lies with the PLO.
If Israel's critics are therefore unfair in criticizing Israel for the death of Lebanese civilians, they are far closer to the mark in raising questions about Israel's sensitivity to the aspirations of the Palestinian Arabs. The current Israeli leadership, by narrowing considerably the focus of the Camp David promises of autonomy for the West Bank and Gaza Palestinians, and by continuing to build settlements in the heart of the West Bank, has made it very difficult for any self-respecting Palestinian Arab to participate in the autonomy talks.
Nevertheless, perhaps one positive outcome of the invasion of Lebanon is that the Israeli leadership, no longer burdened by the pressing military threat of the PLO (whatever the outcome of the Beirut negotiations), might now be more willing to make significant concessions to the Palestinian Arabs of the West Bank and Gaza. Hitherto, the Israeli government has been adamantly opposed to the formation of a West Bank-Gaza legislative council, fearing that it would turn into a parliament which would establish the groundwork for a PLO-dominated Palestinian state.
It is not at all clear, however, that any such development would necessarily be an outcome of the establishment of a legislative council, particularly in the aftermath of the PLO's military failure in Lebanon, and, in any case, the mechanics of establishing such a council would provide fertile ground for diplomatic activity in which Israel could ensure that its security was safeguarded.
A second concession the Israeli government should make to the Palestinians is to cease building settlements on the West Bank and Gaza. Perhaps the greatest cause of anger among Palestinian Arabs in the territories conquered by Israel in 1967 is the increasing number of settlements, which indicates to the West Bank Arabs that Israel is out ultimately to annex their lands. By stopping the construction of settlements, therefore, the Israeli government would remove a major irritant while at the same time showing the Palestinian Arabs that their legislative council would be allowed to deal with the highly sensitive issue of West Bank lands. After Israel's military victory over both Syria and the PLO in Lebanon, the argument that the West Bank settlements are necessary for Israel's security is far less convincing.
In any case, by ending the construction of settlements and agreeing to a legislative council, Israel would be signaling to the Palestinians that, after the war in Lebanon, it was willing to live with them in peace and respect. It is to be hoped that somewhere in the process a group of Palestinians, less fearful of the retribution of a weakened PLO, and convinced of Israel's sincerity by these two major Israeli concessions, would be willing to enter into the peace process by joining the autonomy talks.
Should the autonomy talks show genuine progress, it is quite possible that other Arab states such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan might enter the peace process with Israel. It is possible especially since Egypt, the first Arab state to have made peace with Israel and an outcast in the Arab world since 1979 for doing so, is achieving increasing acceptance by its fellow Arabs both because of its support of the Palestinian cause during Israel's invasion of Lebanon and because of its aid to Iraq in its war against Iran. If, as a final result of Israel's attack on the PLO in Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza Palestinians achieve genuine autonomy, and the Camp David peace process is extended, then perhaps the civilians who died in Lebanon will not have died in vain.