Lebanon's Dead Ground


Paris. -- The power of the weak lies in their capacity to endure the punishment of the strong, to the strong's frustration. On Israel's Lebanon front something approaching a half-million of the weak now are being driven northward from their homes, from a region which Israel now intends to make into what soldiers call dead ground.

This is retaliation for the provocations of the weak. These are not insignificant provocations. They have consisted of seven dead Israeli soldiers in recent days, and constant insecurity in the Israeli settlements near the border with Lebanon, subjected to random rocket fire and the occasional and suicidal terrorist raid.

The power of the weak lies precisely in the fact that these provocations are nonetheless sufficient to have sent Israel into this new program of violence on a huge scale, despite the cost to its diplomatic position and the prospect that it all will in the end have accomplished nothing constructive.

The Israeli invasions of Lebanon in 1978 and 1982 were paradigms of futility. The Palestinian forces in Lebanon were crushed at near-mortal cost to Lebanon, reluctant host to the PLO. But PLO raids on Israel resumed long ago, the intifada has broken out in Gaza and the Occupied Territories, and there have been continuing attacks and rocketing from the Islamic fundamentalist Party of God, the Hezbollah, installed in southern Lebanon.

The present assault is meant to drive the Hezbollah out of the border region. Its militants are presumed unable to function in the future if there no longer is a civilian population among which to move and operate. But after Israel's past experience, it takes a desperate optimism really to believe that.

The unintended outcome of this assault there are always unintended results has been to enhance the position of Syria. This is not simply a matter of President Bill Clinton's having thanked the Syrians for their restraint and asked for Syrian cooperation in constraining the Hezbollah. Israel's Foreign Minister Shimon Peres has himself said that the purpose of this operation is to cause Lebanon to halt Hezbollah attacks on Israel and everyone understands that Damascus determines what Beirut does.

Late in the week Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin told the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, that "we hope for a dialogue with Syria's leaders, who have the capacity to contribute to peace and stability if they wish." He expressed the hope that U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher's planned visit to the Middle East this weekend will contribute to convincing the Syrians to do this.

Israel thus has acknowledged the position of the Syrians as principal determinants of what is to come. The Israeli daily, Haaretz, comments: "Who would have thought that we would find ourselves in a position where the success of our operation depends on the good will of (Syria's) President Assad?"

The irony in this situation is that Israel's attack on Lebanon was undertaken by Yitzhak Rabin to strengthen his hand in attempting to make peace. Mr. Rabin has been under intense pressure to make no concessions to the Palestinians in the peace talks. Mr. Rabin is accused by his critics in Israel (as well as in right-wing Jewish circles in New York and Washington) of planning to give away Israel's territory and security.

The purpose of Hezbollah's campaign of violence in recent months was to radicalize Israeli as well as Palestinian opinion, so as to block a compromise by either side and to prevent any settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. Hezbollah may now be considered to have had a considerable success.

This bombardment of southern Lebanon, attempting to create an extended security zone there composed of rubble, emptied of humanity, is Mr. Rabin's reply to his critics. It is his attempt to reinforce his power to make peace. But it is not in the least clear that he is succeeding. He may have guaranteed the opposite outcome.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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