RECOGNITION that it was Israel's time to withdraw from Lebanon had come long before its decision to do so. The accounting of benefits and losses from the Lebanon invasion was plain to read. Of the gains, from Israel's point of view, the armed presence of the Palestine Liberation Organization in Lebanese territory to the north was quashed and its political leadership thrown into disarray. Among the more numerous minuses, since the June 1982 invasion some 600 Israeli soldiers lost their lives, the financial burden of the war helped anchor Israel in economic crisis, and the emotional investment was equally steep as Israelis saw Lebanon lapse into factional strife, its capital city wasted, and Israel's rival Syria reasserting its influence.
It is instructive to note that, in the end, Israel's decision to leave Lebanon was unilateral. Attempts to negotiate an exit with Lebanon and Syria were stymied all along. The Lebanese government, weak as it was, could not have made a pact that might have been politically acceptable to the Israelis. Syria had only to bide its time. Israel did what it did -- initiate a withdrawal while warning that it was keeping its option to strike again -- essentially for its own reasons.
Prime Minister Shimon Peres is taking a political risk in leading the Israelis out of Lebanon. His party's political base was held to a near-draw by the opposition in the last election. He was joined by enough members of the opposition to make the Lebanon pullout look decisive, but an outbreak of turmoil in southern Lebanon would give the opposition the chance to say, ``We told you.'' The pullout, if all goes well, should prove popular in Israel and could help Mr. Peres build the kind of political following that would be needed for crucial undertakings like resolving the status of other Israeli-occupied territories.
Peres appears to be using his slight political capital with considerable skill in other areas as well. To critics of Israeli settlement policy in the West Bank, a freeze would have been preferable, but Peres did trim the next announced set of new settlements to six, from the more than 30 originally planned, which would have been extravagant given Israel's economy. Peres scored another parliamentary victory this week on the divisive issue of amending Israel's Law of Return to redefine who is a Jew.
But as things stand, Mr. Peres has a long way to go before he is politically in a position to lead Israel toward anything like his concept of peace in return for land in a Middle East settlement.
It is worth noting, however, that the Reagan administration has now officially acknowledged talking with the Soviets about Middle East affairs. Many in Washington have felt for a long time that such a step would be essential. In the Nixon and Carter years, the practice had been at least to keep the Soviets informed. Some analysts see the signs of a coming together among Arab moderates like Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Hussein as offering the prospect of movement on the Arab side. In Washington, Secretary of State George Shultz seems intent on beginning the second Reagan administration with a running start, at least holding out the promise of renewed Reagan interest in promoting a Middle East peace. The Congress, on matters like economic and military aid to Israel, appears even more favorably disposed to Israeli requests than before last fall's election; Congress's disposition, where evident, has been less to link aid to any peace settlement than to seek more accountability on the use of aid and weapons.
Barring some initiative from the outside, such as an Arab move like Anwar Sadat's which made the Camp David accord with Egypt possible, Israeli policy on the occupied territories appears set in the unilateral pattern of the announced Lebanon withdrawal. That is, the Israelis themselves will likely make their decision based on the demographic, military, financial, political, and moral costs of the occupation.
One hopes that some combination of Peres successes, strengthening his political hand in what's left of his 25-month prime ministership in the unity government, and outside initiatives will move Israel through the hard choices it and its neighbors must make about peace.