THE cease-fire brokered in Lebanon via telephone by Secretary of State Warren Christopher brings a sigh of relief, though a small one. Worry that Israel's furious strike at Lebanon last week, in retaliation for Hizbullah guerrilla activity, would permanently damage the Middle East peace process can be, temporarily, put on hold. Mr. Christopher is in the region for four days; consultations will resume.
What is not known is the long-term effect of Israel's action on the tone and direction of the peace process. The effect on the Arab street, on Arab public opinion, cannot be accurately gauged right away. Certainly it is not positive. As some dust settles, what is clear is that Israel launched an attack whose stated aim was to create hundreds of thousands of civilian refugees in an attempt to smoke out the Hizbullah. The stated cause was the killing a month ago of seven Israeli soldiers in the territory o f Lebanon - which Israel continues to occupy in defiance of international law and UN resolutions. Last week, some 150 Lebanese were killed, while three Israelis in the northern territories died from Katyusha rockets launched by Hizbullah after the initial Israeli attack. Some 300,000 to 400,000 Lebanese were driven from their homes - many thousands of which were destroyed by Israeli air- and sea-launched rockets.
It is not clear the objective of either driving out or defanging the Hizbullah has been reached at all.
The attack, which jeopardized 21 months of a US-brokered agreement, took place without consulting Washington; and perhaps because 21 months of work were on the line, Washington did not publicly criticize Israel in the manner it did during the Israeli offensive into Lebanon in 1982. The attacks do further marginalize the Palestinians and damage short-term prospects for an overall peace that would include them. Isolated Palestinians do not help the cause of Arab solidarity.
Christopher will have to put all this into perspective if he expects any kind of honest-broker role.
In the short run, the Lebanon venture may further open Israeli-Syrian negotiations - the separate peace with Syria Tel Aviv has long wanted. The Christopher cease-fire brings the Syrian government of Hafez el-Assad further into the picture. It also showed that when pushed, Mr. Assad can exercise enough political influence inside Lebanon to check Hizbullah. Prior to the cease-fire, Damascus argued it had only limited influence with the radicals. How strong Assad's influence is on Hizbullah, or what he had
to do or say to get a cease-fire, will be tested in the coming months.