THE already shaky Middle East peace process is hanging in the balance as Israel continues its large-scale military assault against the pro-Iranian Hizbullah (Party of God) guerrillas in southern Lebanon.
After implicitly supporting the Israeli strikes, the United States is now attempting to broker a cease-fire to ensure the return of angry Arab participants to the negotiating table. According to Lebanese officials cited by the Reuters news agency, US Secretary of State Warren Christopher was trying yesterday to negotiate a halt to the Israeli assault.
But even if the Arabs return to the talks, Arab leaders and negotiators face rapidly deteriorating support for the talks among Islamist and secular opposition groups and the public.
In the Arab view, as reflected in official statements and press editorials, the Israeli action has only reinforced Arab concerns that Israel will always use its military prowess to impose settlements on the Arabs.
Arab negotiators, particularly Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied territories, worry the escalation in Lebanon will make it extremely difficult for them to convince an increasingly disillioned constituency that an agrement with Israel could terminate its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Contrary to the Western view that Hizbullah and its Iranian backers provoked the violence to sabotage the peace process, Arabs argue that Israel has used the incident as a cover to achieve its goals in Lebanon and to pressure Syria to accept its terms for peace.
Arab officials and analysts are drawing parallels between the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, which forced the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) out of its front-line sanctuary, and the recent clashes. They point out that in both cases military actions did not and will not guarantee the safety of the Israeli border areas, which have been targets of Katyusha missile attacks by Hizbullah guerrillas.
"What Israel is doing is not reassuring at all [of a peaceful settlement]," cautioned Shafiq Wazzan, a former Lebanese prime minister in a commentary published in the London-based Lebanese daily Al Hayat on Wednesday.
"By intensifying its aggression and presence it will only trigger the resurgence of new resistance movements - Islamists, [Lebanese] nationalists, and Palestinians," he says.
Other Arab analysts warn that the Israeli crackdown on the Palestinian militants in the occupied territories and the Lebanese Hizbullah will actually give credence to arguments used by Iran and Islamists against the peace process.
According to Arab officials and editorials, Israel launched the air strikes to achieve several goals:
* To pressure the Lebanese government to terminate the presence of Syrian troops in Lebanon and to disarm the Hizbullah militias without making a commitment to withdraw from the south in accordance with United Nations Security Council Resolution 425, which calls on Israel to withdraw from its self-declared security zone in southern Lebanon.
* To try to pressure Syria to accept a deal involving a partial withdrawal from the Golan Heights in return for a peace treaty.
* To send a signal to Syria that its military presence in Lebanon is irrelevant.
* To focus regional and international attention against Iran.
* To provoke the Lebanese government to prove its "independence" from Syria and Iran.
Even without the role played by Hizbullah, and whatever separate agenda Tehran might have in mind, the ferocity of the latest military eruption in south Lebanon is reflective of the tense atmosphere that loomed over the last round of Lebanese-Israeli talks in Washington.
After one heated session at the State Department, the two sides' chief negotiators emerged fuming with anger. Lebanese Ambassador Antoine Shammas, asserting his delegation's independence, accused the Israelis of trying to force Lebanon to drop UN protection and accept Israeli security arrangements.
His Israeli counterpart, Yuri Lubrani, retorted that if the Lebanese government "were independent," Israel would have reached an agreement with Lebanon.
As efforts to contain the crisis in Lebonon continue, analysts agree that the main challenge that US and Arab negotiators face is not only to save the peace talks from total collapse but also to prove that the talks are not merely a cover used by Israel to keep its control of most Arab territories - as many in the Arab world are now convinced.