Escaping from south Lebanon

AFTER two months of barren negotiations in Naqurah, Israel has decided to unilaterally withdraw its forces from Lebanon, beginning Feb. 18. By the end of 1984 Israel's political leaders, and especially Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin, recognized that the longer Israeli soldiers remained on Lebanese soil, the greater the enmity among the Shiite Muslims predominant in the area. The Israeli government has come to the conclusion that the risks of staying in Lebanon outweigh the dangers raised by leaving. Israel's decision is a wise one and deserves the support of friends as well as critics. The grandiose objectives of 1982 have been jettisoned in favor of a withdrawal in three stages to be concluded in early summer. Yet Mr. Rabin and his advisers are haunted by the fear that Israel has been so successful at making enemies in Lebanon that Shiite extremists will not be satisfied by their departure. The door out of Lebanon need not be a revolving one. That is not to say that small numbers of Israeli soldiers will not be crossing the border but large-scale incursions need not occur.

The danger of the situation in south Lebanon has been plain to see. As the Israeli occupation has worn on, with debilitating effects for the economy and political stability of the area, moderation has been discredited and extremism has been validated among the Shiite Muslims. The imperatives of political and physical survival have pushed responsible centrist leaders into the resistance, and no important Shiite leader has been willing to respond to even quiet Israeli advances.

It is no small irony that it is the Shiites who have so complicated and confounded Israel's situation in Lebanon. The Shiite community had no place in Ariel Sharon's blueprint for a Maronite-dominated Lebanon, and when the Maronites proved a weak and unsteady political reed, it was the Lebanese Druze card that was played. Yet, the Shiites, especially the half million or so living in the south, were the tacit allies of Israel. Living in a border region contiguous to northern Israel, the Shiites, like their Sunni and Christian cohorts, recognized a sound rationale for maintaining peaceful relations with their militarily superior neighbor.

Although the Shiites had earlier lent their manpower to the Palestinian resistance forces based in Lebanon, by the 1980s the Shiite community had tired of paying the cost -- in blood and sorrow -- of the armed guerrilla presence in their midst. By 1981 and 1982 the Shiites were actively fighting the guerrillas and with at least modest success. Unfortunately, Israeli policymakers seem to have been ignorant of these fortuitous developments. Indeed, it is not at all far-fetched to argue that had the Israelis not invaded in 1982, a Shiite-Palestinian conflict would have erupted in Lebanon. Even after more than two years of Israeli occupation, the people of the south retain a deep hatred for the Palestinian guerrillas. The lessons of the last decade have been hard ones, and it remains unlikely the PLO would find it easy to re-establish bases in the south.

If the Shiites have proven one thing, it is that they demand the right to control their own destiny. Many of the Shiite villages that were most steadfast in confronting the PLO have also been among the most important centers of resistance to the Israeli occupation. As soon as peacemaking is not seen as a complement to occupation, I believe that the logic of resistance will give way to the logic of law and order.

None of this is to argue that the south will be trouble-free when the last Israeli soldier leaves. It won't. United Nations forces will have their hands full, old grudges will be settled by the score, and the south will go through a period of turmoil. The restoration of civility will be facilitated by the butressing of the UN force as well as the movement of a Lebanese Army brigade to the south. If wiser heads prevail in New York, Washington, Beirut, Damascus, and Jerusalem, it is possible that the future of south Lebanon will be brighter than its recent past.

Augustus Richard Norton is associate professor of comparative politics at the US Military Academy. He visited Israel in December. The opinions expressed are his own.

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