A Way Out of Lebanon

WHICH is reality? The Mideast of five months ago, or the Mideast of today?

We believe diplomatic efforts now under way will make the answer clear: The peace momentum of last fall is the long-term reality.

In November, leaders of Jordan and Egypt were a moving presence at the funeral of Yitzhak Rabin. Yasser Arafat expressed sympathy to Rabin's widow. With deep relief, a majority of the Israeli, Jordanian, and Palestinian publics backed peace. Syria was pushed toward a deal. Momentum toward peace and normal life were reality.

This week, the picture seems reversed. In defiance of Napoleon's classic warning against getting mired in Lebanon, Israel has once again intruded there. It hit not only its enemies but civilians, causing major refugee flows. The Israeli public, old suspicions rekindled by Hamas suicide bombs, cheered on this retaliation against Hizbullah rocket attacks over Israel's northern border.

This reality pitted the old Israel of the iron fist against rejectionist Arabs trying to destroy the West Bank peace deal and Israel.

The temptation is to believe today's reality rather than yesterday's. But that would be a mistake. Peoples who have tasted, even briefly, the fruits of normal life - with normal trade, normal neighborly relations, and hope that their children and grandchildren may lead a more-prosperous, more- peaceful life - want that reality to return. It's up to the leaders of Israel, Lebanon, the US, Syria, the Palestinians, and possibly Iran to find ways to fulfill those hopes.

Moves to head off the crisis are promising. Discussions pushed by US officials aim to halt both Hizbullah and Israeli attacks by this weekend, and then to develop a plan for ending Hizbullah's threat and gradually ending Israel's occupation of south Lebanon. Next Monday foreign ministers talks start in Luxemburg on halting terrorism (in the Mideast and elsewhere). Monday is also a Lebanese national holiday. European and US officials hope to see Lebanese refugees headed back to their homes by then.

In the Lebanon flareup, Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres has adopted what might be called a George Washington strategy: First in peace, then first in war; in order, he hopes, to be first in the hearts of his countrymen by May's Israeli election. He seems to have accomplished the first two steps of this formula. So presumably he is ready to settle.

The Iranian government also faces a second round of elections in which more pragmatic politicians appear to be gaining ground. Lebanon's government is anxious to get on with ambitious plans for rebuilding its battered cities and keeping its religious factions united behind that aim.

In short, pressures are mounting to get back to the reality of last fall.

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