Renewed hostilities on the border between Israel and Lebanon had better terminate before Secretary of State Warren Christopher arrives in the region Saturday if the stalled Middle East peace process is to revive. For tensions to escalate just before another U.S. negotiating initiative is nothing new. What is new is the scale and severity of the Israeli retaliation for the killing earlier this month of seven of its soldiers and the rain of rockets fired back by the various Arab guerrilla factions.
Much depends on how the major players -- Israel, Syria, the Palestinians and Jordan -- want to deal with the Clinton administration and its diplomatic team of experienced Bush-era holdovers. Mr. Christopher is to spend at least five days in Mideast shuttle diplomacy -- if events permit. It will be his first use of this technique.
Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin is not out to embarrass Mr. Christopher by launching the largest attack on guerrilla bases in Lebanon on more than a decade. Quite the contrary. It could be his raid is pre-emptive -- an attempt to head off violence coincident with Mr. Christopher's visit. The secretary of state made a point yesterday of criticizing the pro-Iranian Hezbollah faction operating out of Lebanon, asserting "we must not allow enemies of the peace process to undermine it."
His remark puts pressure on Syria, which has 30,000 troops in Lebanon and has the power of clamping down on guerrilla operations if it wishes. How it manipulates the Arab response in the next few days will be a good test of its intentions.
Despite the latest bloodshed, this clearly is a moment for new ideas and new efforts. A Golan agreement could end the state of war between Israel and Syria. And an Israeli decision to negotiate directly with the Palestine Liberation Organization could end the pretense of dealing only with West Bank representatives -- a tactic that plays into the hands of more extremist groups.
In October 1991, the Bush administration achieved a procedural triumph by launching a multi-track negotiating process that resulted in Israelis talking directly with Syrians and Palestinians for the first time. After Mr. Rabin's election in June 1992, Israel had its first first tentative discussions about the future of the Golan Heights with Syria. It also was talking directly about autonomy for the West Bank and Gaza.
But as the 20-month ritual ended its tenth round last month without a substantive breakthrough, the Christopher mission was arranged in the hope of achieving just that. It may come to nothing. Certainly, the spectacle of bombs bursting and casualty lists mounting can hardly increase Mr. Christopher's optimism. But the Clinton administration doesn't want the second anniversary of the peace process to come around in October with nothing to show for it. What it seeks is a foreign policy victory somewhere, and the Middle East remains the most dangerous and strategic of the world's trouble spots.