How to pursue Middle East peace

As Donald Rumsfeld assumes his new and thankless responsibilities in the Middle East, he should ponder two fundamental realities, centrally relevant to the success or failure of his mission:

1. Lebanon can only be put together in the context of progress toward a wider Arab-Israeli reconciliation.

2. US influence in the region is dependent on the United States playing the role of mediator and not of protagonist.

Lebanon was destabilized as a consequence of the protracted Arab-Israeli conflict and as the result of the gradual disintegration of the 40-year-old Lebanese covenant. Even without the destabilizing consequences of the Arab-Israeli conflict, that covenant would have eventually come unstuck. It was based on the assumption of parity between the Christians and the Muslims in what in fact is predominantly a Muslim Lebanon, and that formal parity could only be maintained as long as the Muslims were politically inactive and inarticulate. With resurgent Arab nationalism, the Muslims eventually would have rejected the existing arrangement as unfair, but that rejection was speeded by the influx of close to half a million politically awakened Palestinians (almost all Muslims).

Entrance of the Palestinians into Lebanon also brought in its wake both the Syrians and the Israelis, whose involvement was the natural outcome of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon was the catalyst for the final collapse of the Lebanese arrangements.

Today, Lebanon cannot be restored without some gradual resolution of those issues that concern the Palestinians and the Syrians. But that requires progress on the question of the West Bank and some accommodation on the Golan Heights. Outside of such progress, the Lebanese issue will continue to be complicated by the Palestinian presence and by the Syrian interest in not permitting Lebanon to become a de facto satellite of Israel.

The American role in the Middle East will rapidly fade if the US permits itself to be dragged into the Lebanese affair, focusing on Lebanon alone, and gradually pitted against Syria and the Palestinians. There may be some people in the current Israeli government who favor such a development. The recent statements by Israeli leaders, branding the Syrians as the principal perpetrators of the bombing outrage committed against the US Marines, seemed designed to incite the American public against the Syrians.

An America engaged against the Syrians and the Palestinians, however, would be an America without any capacity to mediate on behalf of peace in the Middle East, and it would be also an America that in effect delivered the region to the Soviets. The long-term result, devastating for the US and for Israel, would be the massive political and military entry of the Soviet Union into the region.

It is in this context that one can assess options for US policy. They are essentially four:

1.To withdraw. This would save lives, but it would be an admission of failure , and American power would be discredited in the region, for the United States would be seen as withdrawing as the result of a successful terrorist act.

2. To stay as is, focusing narrowly on the Lebanese problem. That is the current policy: It runs the very high risk not only of renewed American casualties but of the US being transformed into a protagonist against Syria, thereby generating the negative consequences mentioned above.

3. To team up with Israel to punish the transgressors and to create a more effective military balance against Syria. This course of action, apparently advocated by Henry Kissinger, in the short run would put increased pressure on Syria, but in the long run would make American power essentially a tool of Israeli foreign policy. The longer-range result would be the delivery of the region to the Soviet Union, thereby also threatening longer-range US strategic interests in Western Europe and the Far East. These two regions would clearly be affected adversely by such a development in the Middle East.

4. To maintain American presence, but to tie it to a larger and more comprehensive peace effort. This means that the negotiations on Lebanon would be related also to American efforts to promote a serious dialogue regarding the Golan Heights and the West Bank, on the basis of UN Resolutions 242 and 338, and in keeping with the policy goals set by President Reagan in his speech of Sept. 1, 1982. That clearly would be the wisest course of action to pursue, for only in such a setting would application of American power to Lebanon be related to the pursuit of wider American geopolitical interests.

One is justified, however, in entertaining considerable pessimism regarding the administration's ability and determination to pursue such a more ambitious political objective. We are now in the fourth year of the presidential cycle, and it is therefore not a year in which the President is likely to engage in politically risky undertakings. The pursuit of peace in the Middle East is a taxing process, requiring presidential involvement, given its sensitivity domestically. It is also an undertaking that requires time for its successful consummation and therefore for eventual public appreciation of the merits of the enterprise. In the short run, any such undertaking tends to be controversial and politically even counterproductive.

Accordingly, the most likely course the administration will pursue is to exploit the Rumsfeld mission as a cover, creating the illusion of progress while essentially marking time. In effect, it will be a smoke screen for Option 2, with its attendant risks to American lives and with its probable long-term costs to vital American national interests.

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