Like the dog that didn’t bark in the Sherlock Holmes case, the absence of Israel from the scene provides the master clue to the latest outbreak of violence in Lebanon. The fighting pits a group of Arabs who want to come to terms with Israel against several groups of Arabs, including Syria, who don’t. It is, literally, a war against peace.
The continuing struggle shows that, despite the favorable elements stressed by Jordan’s King Hussein at the White House, the political climate in the Middle East remains unripe for an Arab-Israeli accord. So the American policy of watchful waiting corresponds with the situation on the ground.
The fighting directly engages many ethnic and religious factions that have made Lebanon a cockpit of international politics for a decade. A principal force is the Shias, a Muslim sect that makes up the largest single bloc in Lebanon. Once pariahs, the Shias came into their own after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982.
First the Shias cheered as the Israelis liberated their territories in southern Lebanon from the yoke of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Next the Shias turned against the Israelis and used terror tactics to speed the occupying troops out of southern Lebanon. But, with their base in southern Lebanon cleared, the Shias do not want reoccupation by the PLO forces of Yasser Arafat. To that end, Shia forces attacked the area still dominated by Palestinian refugees around Beirut.
Resistance came from three factions. PLO forces loyal to Arafat shot back from refugee camps that have been turned into fortresses. Medical aid to the besieged Palestinians was provided by the Druze, a Muslim sect backed by Syria. Military aid to the Arafat forces was provided by a rump PLO faction, originally set up by the Syrians as a PLO opposition to Arafat.
Why the Syrians turned their proxy forces against the Shias provides a topic for intense speculation. The obvious motive is to block any coming to terms along the Lebanese-Israeli border. The Shias seek accommodation with the Israelis along the frontier. Accommodation would foster trends favoring a wider peace that are already making headway in Israel and Jordan.
The present government of Israel is a national coalition linking the two main parties--the Labor alliance headed by Prime Minister Shimon Peres and the Likud group headed by Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir. Under the terms of the coalition, Peres has to step down and let Shamir take over in the fall of 1986.
But if Likud voluntarily withdrew from the coalition, Peres could probably stay in power--by either a ministerial shuffle or new elections. So Peres has an incentive to make peaceful gestures to the Arabs that alienate the Likud, but not the whole Israeli electorate.
The prime minister has already ventured far down that road. He has pushed Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon at a rapid clip, and expects to announce completion of the pullout before this weekend. He negotiated a lopsided prisoner exchange--more than 1,000 Arabs, including some convicted terrorists, against three captured Israeli soldiers held in Syria. He has opened negotiations for a summit meeting with President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt. While refusing to talk directly with senior leaders of the PLO, Peres has expressed willingness to talk with a delegation headed by Jordanians and including Palestinians who might have PLO ties.
King Hussein has inched toward the acceptance of a proposal by the United States for Palestinian self-rule within the context of a Jordanian state. The king has recognized Egypt, which openly favors such an arrangement. In long negotiations Hussein wrung from Arafat explicit willingness to trade land claims against political rights.
During those negotiations Arafat refused to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist as asserted in U.N. Resolutions 242 and 338. He did not abandon hopes of creating an independent Palestinian state. He did not explicitly accept the concept of Palestinian self-rule under Jordanian sovereignty. His refusal to accept those terms set the stage for the latest battle of Beirut.
Arafat tried to break out of the cage by moving his PLO forces from the Beirut camps to the Israeli border. To prevent that, the Shia forces struck the Beirut camps. Syria’s proxies then hit back against the Shias to make it certain that trouble would continue unabated.
The stalemate that resulted puts the next step up to Arafat. He can bow to the pressures, throw in the towel of Resolutions 242 and 338 and let Hussein make peace with the Israelis along the lines advocated by the United States and Egypt. There is hope that this can occur soon, and Hussein on a visit to the White House on Wednesday said that he had Arafat’s acceptance of all those points.
But until Arafat himself says so publicly, the United States is well advised in maintaining its resistance to dealing with senior PLO officials. A stiffish attitude has already yielded dividends in Israel, Jordan and Egypt. Another dose of the same will strengthen Hussein in his continuing talks with Arafat. As Secretary of State George P. Shultz keeps saying, it is not the business of the United States to be more in favor of peace than the parties on the ground.