Southern Lebanon: the slide from optimism to impasse

SHORTLY before the Israeli/Lebanese talks began at Nakoura on Nov. 7, Assistant Secretary of State Richard Murphy remarked only half jestingly to Israeli colleagues that he expected the agreement to be the quickest ever reached in the area. At the time, Murphy's optimism seemed warranted. The Israelis had long since abandoned all political objectives in Lebanon, including the withdrawal of Syrian forces, and were ready to settle instead for an agreement likely to guarantee their northern Galilee communities security against sustained artillery attack from Lebanese soil. Further, the basic vehicle for achieving this result -- an expanded territorial role for UNIFIL troops in southern Lebanon -- had been agreed to publicly by Beirut and in Murphy's judgment, tacitly accepted by the Syrians as well. UNIFIL -- the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon -- was established in the late 1970s to be a buffer between the forces of the Palestine Liberation Organization and Israel in southern Lebanon.

Lebanese Prime Minister Rashid Karameh, for example, had termed an expanded UNIFIL role ``indispensible.'' In an Oct. 5 address to the United Nations General Assembly he had added: ``Therefore, Lebanon calls for measures to support those forces by increasing their number, widening the area of their deployment, and reinforcing their effectiveness.''

Syrian cooperation seemed assured because having already achieved the withdrawal of the American Marines from Lebanon, the installation of a Beirut government compatible with Syrian interests, and abrogation of the May 17, 1983, Lebanese/Israeli accord, President Hafez Assad was in a position through the Nakoura talks to achieve his fourth and final stated goal -- the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Lebanon with no political achievement to show for their invasion.

Even so, it took Syrian pressure to get the factionalized Beirut government to request that the UN convene the talks.

In addition to his clear political achievement, Assad stood to gain further by a negotiated Israeli withdrawal which would free an entire Syrian Army from potential trouble with Israeli units perched above the Bekka Valley while also moving the Israelis back from positions less than 25 miles from Damascas.

Some tough negotiating points were, of course, anticipated. A 1983 agreement had sanctioned a number of security guarantees demanded by the Israelis, including a quasi-permanent role along the border for Israel's client South Lebanese Army, the conduct of Israeli overflights, the maintenance of ground monitoring devices, and even the establishment of joint Israeli/Lebanese patrols to guard the border area against infiltrators heading south. Israel had lost much of its bargaining leverage during the intervening months but none of its zest for these arrangements.

Yet Nakoura has not foundered to date on any of these points. Indeed, as the parties prepare to return for the Jan. 7 session, which Israel has warned could be the last unless there is a material change in Beirut's position, the Lebanese have yet to agree to any role whatsoever for UNIFIL troops north of their current boundary, the Litani River.

There is no mystery about what has changed during the interim. The Lebanese have not been infused with any new sense of national sovereignty. Nor have they discovered a fresh aptitude for peacekeeping on the part of the regular Lebanese Army which, following awesome displays of incompetence in the Beirut and Tripoli environs, is only now preparing to extend its authority south along the coastal road to the Awali River. Nor can the Beirut government be confident that Christian, Shiite, and Druze factions can live in blissful harmony south of the Awali while exchanging car bombs and Katyusha rockets in the sovereign, liberalized north.

Rather the answer to Lebanese intransigence can be found in Damascus where Assad has suffered a succession of diplomatic reverses which appear to have diminished his taste for regional order. In rapid succession Egypt and Jordan resumed diplomatic relations, the Soviet Union moved to improve ties with both Egypt and Jordan, Yasser Arafat successfully conducted a session of the Palestinian National Conference in Amman despite its boycott by Syrian-dominated PLO factions, and Iraq moved to exchange ambassadors with the United States. What appeared to be emerging was a moderate Cairo-Amman-Baghdad axis neutralizing Syrian influence in the region and, with its inclusion of Arafat, holding the implicit longer-term prospect of negotiations with Israel.

Assad's first response has been to sabotage the talks at Nakoura. The Amman murder of moderate Palestinian leader Fahd Kawasmeh may well have been his second.

Assad shrewdly and correctly calculates that Israel currently sees neither strategic nor tactical logic in renewed military confrontation with Syria. If there is no change in the Lebanese position at Nakoura, Israel must be prepared to hold its current line at the Awali, redeploy in such a way as to reduce vastly its role as occupier of such south Lebanon cities as Sidon, Tyre, and Nabbitiyya or withdraw from Lebanon entirely.

Among both military leaders and the labor faction of Israel's National Unity government, the sentiment is strongly for a total withdrawal from Lebanon, albeit one which would maintain Israel's support for the South Lebanon Army while preserving Israeli freedom of action should Syrian forces move beyond well-understood lines or should the area again witness the build-up of substantial PLO or other avowedly hostile forces.

Total withdrawal would get Israel out of the thicket of south Lebanon factional conflict. It would end an intrusive and strategically unjustified military occupation, save money and lives, and demonstrate a renewed sense of limits on the part of a small country with finite resources. It would, moreover, leave to Mr. Assad the pleasure of sorting out the political mess occasioned by his own obstructionism.

Standing pat at the Awali merely exacerbates all problems associated with the occupation including the escalating militancy of the area's majority Shiite population, a development many knowledgeable Israelis concede is the direct result of their occupation and which may, in the long run, prove far more menacing to Israeli security than was the initial PLO presence. Redeploying is in itself costly and time consuming with no real cause to believe it will substantially lessen the political costs of occupation nor any suggestion that Israel will gain through limited redeployment the bargaining leverage with Damascas it now lacks as the troubled regional occupier.

However, within the Likud, which conceived and executed operation ``Peace for Galilee,'' total withdrawal would be the final humiliation to a campaign in which humiliation has not been in short supply. To state the matter simply, there is no chance that Likud members of the current Cabinet will support total withdrawal and no chance that Prime Minister Shimon Peres will elect to make Lebanon the issue which shatters his National Unity government.

Politics thus prevents Israel from exercising the ``least worst'' Lebanon option -- total withdrawal. Israel, therefore, returns to Nakoura prepared to do little but add to the string of victories Hafez Assad has won in Lebanon without firing a shot.

C. Robert Zelnick is the ABC News correspondent in Tel Aviv.

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