THE most serious military action in Lebanon since the 1982 Israeli invasion of that country poses a serious threat to the Middle East peace process. The aim of the pro-Iranian Hizbullah is obvious; but that doesn't mean it won't be effective. Governments in the region may want progress more than ever. But the state of the talks are very fragile due to continuing violence and adjustments to a new White House. Radicals on all sides would like to damage the process permanently.
Militant Arabs in Lebanon provoked Israeli forces in the occupied "security zone" for weeks. Tel Aviv's strategy is often to answer provocation with deliberate, punishing clarity; Israel's retaliation, beginning July 25, has been decisive and deadly. Yet that approach must delight Hizbullah since it glamorizes its cause and harms the talks - just prior to Secretary of State Warren Christopher's arrival in the region July 31. Sadly, the first peace-process casualty may be the Palestinians. They will find it difficult to negotiate if their people are being bombed in Lebanon.
Washington hopes, as do we, that the Israeli strikes end immediately and that the situation cools down quickly. Mr. Christopher's role must be strong and fair; he is sending the right signal by cutting short his Asia trip to focus on the Middle East. He has publicly castigated Hizbullah; but he must privately raise the issue of Israel's "presence" in southern Lebanon as well. Some 21 months of talks may be lost if the peace process is held captive to the intractable problem of Lebanon - a place offering radicals with rockets a never-ending base of operation.
In the Arab view, Lebanon will never gain control of itself until Israel leaves its occupied southern strip of the country. The Lebanese government, such as it is, argues it cannot ask Syrian forces to leave its territory (an Israeli demand), or clean up Hizbullah, until the Israelis leave.
Israel, for its part, can argue that it might as well stay in Lebanon because even if it did withdraw, Hizbullah would continue to shell Israeli targets. That is probably true. Still, Israel can significantly help the peace process by talking about a withdrawal. It may sound improbable, but Prime Minister Rabin, having again shown his constituency he can be tough, may be able to do this. Such a move would give Israel a bargaining chip and deprive radicals in Lebanon of their main excuse for their deeds.
The new Lebanon episode shows the need to more intelligently deal with Islamic radicalism. At the moment it appears the Iranian-backed Hizbullah is capable of holding the peace process hostage - quite an irony. Thus far, all parties have been reluctant to discuss an Iranian role in the process. The United States has ignored Islamic passions as internal issues, and written off Iran as impossible to work with. That may be correct for now. Arab states do not support Iran either. Yet middle ground must be fo und between ignoring radicals and responding militarily, as the Israelis have done.