THE United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) has been deployed on an ``interim'' basis in southern Lebanon for more than a decade. In March 1978, the UN approved the resolution proposed by the Carter administration which established UNIFIL in response to the international crisis that emerged from the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. UNIFIL's mandate was to monitor the Israeli withdrawal and to restore peace and security in the area. Those who hoped UNIFIL would help solve Lebanon's problems have found the 10th anniversary depressing. The recent kidnapping of American Lt. Col. William Higgins illustrates that Lebanese security is among the most unstable in the Middle East, and Israel has now been a de facto occupying power in southern Lebanon for 10 years.
Why then keep the force? Under present circumstances, it cannot accomplish what it was supposed to. Further, it is a dangerous and costly operation: So far, 151 UN blue berets have died while serving in southern Lebanon. Furthermore, it is heavily in debt. UN member states, with the United States as one of the main debtors, owe UNIFIL $310 million, and the figures are rising. The UN's reputation continues to take a beating.
On the other hand, most Middle East experts agree that a pullout now might result in a rapidly deteriorating situation, one which could ignite a larger conflict. The UN should not take this risk.
As with the rest of Middle Eastern politics, Israel holds the key. Its policy in southern Lebanon can at best be described as a failure. If Israel had withdrawn after clearing the area of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1982, Amal - the moderate Shiite group - would have gained control and probably been able to resist challenges from more militant groups.
The Israeli presence has prevented this. The Israelis and the so-called South Lebanon Army, a militia financed, trained, equipped, and to a large extent under operational control of Israeli forces, foster a dangerous radicalization and polarization of the population of southern Lebanon.
Israel publicly maintains that it withdrew from Lebanon in 1985. Yet Israel represents an occupying force for the Lebanese, who are daily reminded of its presence. Anger toward Israel has also created increasing dissatisfaction with the moderate Amal among large groups of Shiite Muslims who find Amal too ``soft.'' This has accelerated the support for militant extremists like Hizbullah. That development is alarming, because a strong Amal would only fight the Israelis down to the international border. Hizbullah and the PLO have vowed to fight Israel ``all the way to Jerusalem.''
Temporarily, the tense situation among the anti-Israeli groups relieves some pressure from Israel. But this will not last. Amal continues to oppose the radicals, but it also increasingly appreciates the appeal of their anti-Israeli message. The likely result is a more radical Amal.
Israel must therefore make a choice. It can either stay in Lebanon - with increasingly costly military operations to clear up the resistance that will inevitably grow - or pull out. For the second alternative, however, it might soon be too late: If the militant elements become very strong, neither Amal nor UNIFIL may be able to control their cross-border activity into Israel.
A continued Israeli presence in Lebanon imperils UNIFIL. The force is supposed to represent a buffer, but if large-scale fighting breaks out, UNIFIL, largely defenseless, will be caught in the middle.
Israel has only one choice if it wants peace on its northern border: Leave Lebanon before it is too late and let the UN troops do their job. It is time to think in new terms, and the decision has to be taken in Jerusalem.
Aage Eknes is executive director and Thomas G. Weiss is director of conflict management at the International Peace Academy, New York. The views are their own.