ISRAELI leaders say their latest bombing campaign against Palestinian and Lebanese guerrilla bases in south Lebanon is mainly aimed at preempting an enhanced "terrorist" threat. But Lebanese and Palestinian officials see the strikes as an attempt to reassert Israel's stake in Lebanon and disrupt Lebanon's stabilization under Syria's wing, a process taking place with international blessing, including that of the United States.
Syria's primacy in Lebanon reflects its role since the Gulf war, in which Damascus sided with the US-led coalition. For that reason, some analysts believe, Israel may also be using Lebanon as an arena in which to challenge US-backed moves toward a wider regional peace settlement, as in the early 1980s.
In the past, some of Israel's most punitive air strikes on Lebanon were clearly triggered by specific guerrilla attacks. But there is no suggestion that the latest series of air raids was prompted by guerrilla activity, which has been in a relative lull.
The roots of the new campaign seem to lie firmly in Israeli concern over Syria's growing influence in Lebanon, culminating in the Treaty of Brotherhood, Cooperation, and Coordination signed in Damascus May 22 by Syria and Lebanon.
The latest bombing of bases began Monday, the day the new treaty formally came into effect. In raids Tuesday and Wednesday, at least 20 people died. It was the most intensive campaign of its kind since Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon. Combined with reports of a troop buildup in Israel's self-proclaimed "security zone," it raised fears of a major Israeli incursion.
The targets ranged across the spectrum of Palestinian factions - from Yasser Arafat's mainstream al-Fatah to radical splinter groups - and included Lebanese Muslim militia positions, too.
Without saying so explicitly, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens has strongly implied that the bombing campaign aims to counter Syrian influence. In addition to its treaty with Beirut, Damascus has recently opened a dialogue with Mr. Arafat's faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization and encouraged pro-Syrian factions to mend fences with Arafat loyalists.
"Despite the recent Syrian successes, we hope that, in the end, Syria's process of taking control of Lebanon will be stopped, and Lebanon will return to being an independent state," Mr. Arens said Wednesday. The Israeli daily Hadashot commented: "A massive aerial attack is a clear signal: Israel does not recognize the rules of the new game that Damascus is dictating."
The raids also have a disruptive effect on efforts to pursue the Arab-backed peace plan for Lebanon, in which Syria has a key role. With the Christian and Muslim sections of Beirut reunified under state authority and the Lebanese Army taking control in areas outside the capital, the next moves were to be in the south. Palestinian guerrilla factions there were under pressure to bring their armed presence under Beirut's control.
"But how can anyone come to us and ask us to give up our arms, when we are being subjected to savage Israeli air raids?" a PLO official asks.
If Beirut establishes control over the irregular armed factions in south Lebanon, it will be well-placed to press Washington to push for implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 425 of 1978, which calls for a complete Israeli withdrawal.
"The Israelis are trying to destroy this process of national reconciliation, because they know that very soon they are going to be asked to implement Resolution 425, whereby the Army of Lebanon is going to be deployed in the south," says Khalid Mekkawi, Lebanon's ambassador to the UN.
Analysts say that if Israel fails to disrupt the trend in Lebanon, it could face strong pressure to implement Resolution 425 - thus setting a precedent for the application of other UN resolutions on the Palestinian question.
"After their invasion in 1982, the Israelis helped obstruct American peace efforts in Lebanon as part of their campaign to sabotage the Reagan peace plan for the region," one diplomat says. "Now something similar seems to be happening again."