In the recent compounding tragedies of the Middle East, there is the risk of another casualty: the United Nations.
The resistance by Israel to any UN role in the resolution of the Beirut crisis and the apparent acquiescence of the United States in that position have added further to the global erosion of confidence in the international organization.
In the Middle East this erosion of confidence accelerated during the implementation of the Camp David framework. Egypt wanted a UN presence at the signing of the agreements. Israel resisted. The signatories settled for a UN flag in the background.
Egypt - and the US - would have preferred a Sinai peacekeeping force under UN auspices. This had been the pattern in the past. Israel expressed its clear preference for a force including US units, not under UN command. The Soviet refusal to sanction a UN force under the Camp David accords helped Israel realize this goal.
In its recent invasion of Lebanon, Israel bypassed and ignored the multinational UN force still in southern Lebanon. The US, with its own mixed emotions about the Israeli invasion, did little to reinforce UN authority in the area. The US did support - despite Israeli objections - the very restricted deployment of a small number of UN observers in Beirut during the PLO withdrawal.
The Israelis consider they have potent arguments for opposing any further UN role in their region. UN General Assembly rhetoric - and many restrictions - show a clear bias against Israel. The Israelis feel the UN force in southern Lebanon was totally ineffective in preventing terrorist acts. They found greater security in the existence of Major Haddad's enclave. Finally, the Israelis feel that involving the UN means automatically involving the Soviets; they doubt that , after Camp David, Soviet concerns are any longer relevant to a satisfactory solution to the Arab-Israeli issue.
The US administration clearly shares many of these views, although it is not prepared as completely to write off the UN.
At the heart of the issue is the question of whether peace can be achieved in the region without negotiations in a broad framework involving not only the Israelis and the Arabs but the Soviets as well.
From the beginning, UN actions have formed the only acceptable basis for progress. Significant steps, such as the Sinai disengagement, benefited from a foundation laid by UN resolutions. Resolution 242 made possible a common starting point for negotiations at Camp David. Even Sadat, while he broke with the past in many ways, attached importance to a continued UN role in the problems of the region.
Continued involvement of the UN is also important to many of America's friends. France, in particular, which has played an important role in peacekeeping, regards a UN role as essential for its own long-term participation.
The Soviet stock in the Middle East may today be at its nadir and the faltering regime in Moscow incapable of more than rhetoric. It would be rash to assume, on this basis, that the Soviets will continue a passive attitude toward a region they consider to be on their doorstep. The possibility of their mischief-making can be limited by constructive US leadership in the UN Security Council. Our veto remains a significant safeguard for our interests as well as for those of Israel.
The ultimate place the US assigns to the UN in its approach to the Middle East will have a much wider effect. Our failure to support a role for the international organization in one of the world's most critical areas can only diminish the UN's ability to deal with crises elsewhere. The President's recent initiative takes clearly into account the relevant Security Council resolutions.
On Oct. 18 the mandate for the UN force in southern Lebanon expires. Sometime before that date the Security Council must face the issue of its renewal and of the future role of the force. That should be the opportunity for the US, despite the realistic limitations on the current use of the force, to reaffirm its support for a significant UN role in Lebanon and the Middle East.
Any acquiescence by the US in an Israeli move to disband the force and to eliminate the possibility of its future use in a Lebanese accord will further weaken the international organization and its usefulness in the peace process. Such weakening would have implications not only for the region but for the world as well.