Watching southern Lebanon

Removing foreign forces from Lebanon is proving to be a diplomatic challenge. First the Lebanese and Israelis spent weeks hammering out an agenda for negotiations. Now the talks appear to be hung up over Israeli proposals for security arrangements in southern Lebanon. The United States is thus in the uncomfortable position of having to take a firm hand if it wants to see its diplomatic objectives realized.

Most people will be sympathetic to Israel's desire for a security system to prevent PLO guerrillas and Syrian forces from returning to Lebanon, rebuilding their military presence, and again launching attacks. Otherwise the war, from Israel's standpoint, will have been fought in vain. But Lebanon's objection to having Israelis operating listening stations in southern Lebanon is equally understandable; such a presence would impinge on Lebanese sovereignty and impair President Gemayel's relations with other Arab countries. Hence the plan reportedly proposed by US special envoy Philip Habib seems to be a feasible compromise to break the deadlock.

Under the proposal, a multinational force, including Americans, would man three electronic surveillance stations. If Israel rejected such an alternative, the other possibility would be to have Americans alone operating the listening posts.

Would this be getting the United States too involved? The American public cannot but be concerned about what seems to be a growing US presence in the Middle East - first in Sinai, then the Marines in Beirut, and now perhaps a few Americans in southern Lebanon. The pitfalls of such a monitoring plan are obvious: It might be extremely difficult to detect PLO fighters trying to sneak back into the country, and if they did sneak back in and hostilities broke out again the United States would be caught in the middle.

Certainly a multinational contingent is preferable. However, in the event that the Israelis would accept only American personnel, this alternative plan cannot be ruled out if the peace process is to move forward. The monitoring personnel need not be combat troops but simply civilian technicians. This was the case in Sinai where about 100 Americans operated early-warning stations for a number of years before Israel returned the territory to Egypt. This US monitoring force apparently won the confidence of both sides, Egyptian and Israeli, and the mission was deemed entirely successful.

In the case of the Israeli-Lebanese border, civilian monitors could be immediately withdrawn if fighting erupted. The only problem is whether the operation is technically feasible - i.e., whether in terrain such as obtains in southern Lebanon sensor devices are capable of picking up movements by individuals or small bands of guerrillas.

Many Americans would be uneasy about US personnel becoming further engaged in the battle-prone region. The recent close calls between Marines and Israelis in Lebanon are a pointed warning of the potential for conflict, something Washington naturally wants to avoid. But the goal of achieving a pullout of Israeli and Syrian forces from Lebanon is an overriding one. Unless there is such a withdrawal, it will be extremely difficult, perhaps impossible, to launch peace talks on autonomy for Palestinians in the West Bank. With Israeli rapidly colonizing that area, time is of the essence.

President Reagan has the task not only of proposing a security solution for southern Lebanon but of selling it to the Israeli government. The question remains: How far is he willing to press?

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