Israel has at long last resolved to pull its army out of Lebanon, not because most of the major purposes of its invasion 31 months ago have been achieved but out of a weary awareness that they never can be. The timing of the three-stage withdrawal will be determined unilaterally, and could be concluded by the end of summer. With that an enormously costly misadventure should end, at least for the time being.
What if anything will fill the vacuum left by Israel's pullback from the 850 square miles of Lebanese soil that it occupies--what, in other words, might serve to prevent the eruption of a new round of civil strife in southern Lebanon--remains undetermined. For now at any rate notice has been served. As far as Israel is concerned the fate of southern Lebanon is about to pass into other hands. Perhaps by some miracle the Lebanese government will find the will and the wherewithal to establish its authority. More likely the predominantly Shia population of the south will try to assert the political power that it has never been allowed to have, precipitating a new explosion of regional fighting with Christians and others.
Israel's objective now is little more than a return to the pre-invasion status quo. It intends to support a friendly indigenous force on its immediate northern border, the so-called South Lebanon army, and says that it will send its troops and planes back to Lebanon if cross-border attacks ever resume. There seems to be little chance that the people of southern Lebanon, who first welcomed but have long since grown restive and hostile under the Israeli occupation, will pose any threat to Israel once its army has left the country. Israel's main concern instead is a return of Palestine Liberation Organization forces to southern Lebanon and the menace to northern Israel that they could pose.
The primary aim of the Lebanon invasion was of course to remove the PLO once and for all as a military threat to Israel, and the claim has long since been made that this at least was accomplished. But a sense of nagging uncertainty clearly remains. Israel has paid a very heavy human, economic and political price for its invasion of Lebanon, and in the end even its purported gains are still shadowed in doubt.