Middle East changes
HEREWITH, first, a chronology of recent events in the Middle East, which is worth more than passing notice because it tells us of changes in the relative strength of Israel and its Arab neighbors.
Thursday, Nov. 8. Delegations of Israeli and Lebanese military officers met in the border town of Naqurah just north of the Israel-Lebanese frontier to begin talks aimed at withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from Lebanon. The talks should have begun three days earlier. They were delayed by pressure on the Lebanese government from Muslim forces opposed to any talks of any kind with Israel.
On the same evening, Nov. 8. Israeli forces in occupation in southern Lebanon arrested a group of Shiite Muslim activists suspected by the Israelis of directing harassment of Israeli troops in Lebanon. Several were apparently released that day or the next, but four were held.
Saturday, Nov. 10. The government of Lebanon announced that it had suspended the talks with Israel pending release of all the Muslim activists.
Friday, Nov. 16. Israel released and sent home the last of the Arabs they had seized on Nov. 8. His name was Mahmoud Fakih. He has been identified in news accounts as the leader of the Amal militia in occupied southern Lebanon.
He said after his release that he had been blindfolded and beaten during his nine-day captivity. He also said the Israelis had proposed that he arrange for the Shiites to provide security for Israeli interests in southern Lebanon.
Meanwhile, Lebanon took a strong opening position in the talks. It rejected as unacceptable an Israeli proposal that military control in southern Lebanon be in the hands of a so-called South Lebanese Army under the command of a Gen. Antoine Lahd. This is the former ''Hadad'' force, which was recruited, trained, and paid by Israel. It is not recognized by Lebanon as being part of the Lebanese Army and is not under the order of the government of Lebanon.
In addition to refusing to put southern Lebanon under the above Israel-controlled force, the Lebanese asked for $10 billion in reparations for the damage done in Lebanon during the Israeli invasion of 1982. The figure is roughly four times the annual grant which the US currently is paying Israel.
In other words Lebanon is the place where Israel is learning the lesson which the United States learned in Vietnam and which, perhaps, the Soviets are learning in Afghanistan. It is a mistake for any nation to engage in military ventures beyond its capabilities. The US was overcommitted in Vietnam. Israel was, and still is, overcommitted in Lebanon.
Getting out of a failed venture is humiliating at best and expensive as well. Israel still has the strongest and most efficient military force in the Middle East. But its morale has been damaged by the Lebanon invasion - for the first time in its history. Some Israelis refused to fight. Some refused to serve.
Public opinion in Israel has been bitterly divided by the Lebanon invasion. There is today pressure from part of the Israeli community for withdrawal. Half of the divided government wants to get out as soon as possible. The plain fact is that Israel cannot afford to stay much longer in Lebanon. The money cost is beyond the capability of an empty treasury and an economy staggering under nearly 1,000 percent inflation.
Lebanon has one of the most divided and fragile governments in the Middle East. Yet it dares to demand reparations and unconditional withdrawal from Israel.
Before the invasion, Israel dominated its neighborhood. Israel had the capacity to take what Arab territory it wanted. Today it must get out of Lebanon and knows it.
Israel, until the Lebanon venture, relied on its own armed forces for its security. It did not need to make peace with the Arabs. Times change. Is this the time when it just might be worthwhile for the Arabs to make a peace offer?
In Washington, the State Department is dusting off President Reagan's 1982 plan for peace in the Middle East. Israel rejected that plan when it was first made. They might be more receptive today.