Israel's dilemma: too much power, ill applied


PARIS -- The man they refused to invite to the Sharm el-Sheikh meeting in mid-March to denounce Middle Eastern terrorism, Syrian President Hafez el Assad, has now been acknowledged the only man who can protect northern Israel from terrorism.

The eventually successful efforts by Secretary of State Warren Christopher and his French counterpart, Herve de Charette, to win Mr. Assad's cooperation in the Lebanon crisis provided a "pathetic" spectacle, in the word of one diplomat on the scene, himself French. They were "groveling at his feet."

There was no success for Israel in the cease-fire which followed, nor for the U.S., whatever the gloss put on it in Washington and Tel Aviv. Both have been harmed. Electoral advantage might be rescued by Prime Minister Shimon Peres, who faces a national vote May 29, but that remains to be seen. President Clinton is more likely to enjoy a political reward for his support for Israel.

Israel is worse off for having demonstrated political miscalculation in attacking Lebanon, a lack of military capability to do away with the Hezbollah rocket attacks, and a callousness toward Lebanese civilian suffering which would have brought international condemnation down upon any other ranking nation.

Mr. Peres cannot say "The Lebanese are not our enemies. We do not want to make their lives miserable," as he did in Washington Monday, when the Israeli air, artillery and naval bombardments that began April 11 were deliberately intended to make refugees of a half-million Lebanese civilians, destroying their homes and possessions, in order to place pressure upon their government to do what that government was, itself, powerless to do -- stop Hezbollah's shelling of Israeli villages.

Only the Syrian government, whose army occupies Lebanon, can stop Hezbollah. However, Syria's responsibility for what has happened is officially ignored by Israel. It has been acknowledged only implicitly, by the repeated trips to Damascus by Mr. Christopher, asking Mr. Assad to end a crisis that officially had nothing to do with Syria.

America loses its role

The United States was diminished in this, and by Mr. Christopher's and President Clinton's abandonment of the previous American stance as honest arbiter between Israel and the Arabs. Their efforts in this case had only one purpose, to rescue Israel from the trouble it had got itself into, and thereby to save Mr. Peres from election defeat.

With the 1974 "shuttle diplomacy" of Henry Kissinger, President Carter's subsequent sponsorship of the Camp David settlement between Israel and Egypt, and the Bush administration's attempts to restrain Israel's colonization of the occupied territories, the United States built up a diplomatic position as a power willing to acknowledge the legitimate interests of Israel's neighbors, and of the Palestinians, even though remaining an ally of Israel.

In this case Washington paid no attention to the Lebanese, helpless victims of the war, until the French made such a nuisance of themselves on behalf of Lebanon that Mr. Christopher had to appease them by a visit to Lebanon and by the inclusion of Lebanon in the cease-fire agreement.

Poor Lebanon! Once again it was the victim of forces beyond Lebanese control. All but destroyed by the terrible civil war provoked in 1975 by the unwanted presence of Palestinian refugees and militants, who attacked Israel from Lebanese territory and caused the sanguinary Israeli invasion of 1982, it now, in 1996, is held accountable for Hezbollah, actually controllable only by Syria and Iran.

Evidence of what violence does, however, is that today the tormented Lebanese (to quote London's Financial Times) "have rediscovered themselves as a nation, a sense they had lost in the tribal bloodletting involving the country's 17 minority communities in the 1975-90 civil war." The country's finance minister, Fouad Sanioura, says: "There hasn't been a time in the modern history of Lebanon when the people were so united as they are today."

Hanan Ashrawi, who was a Palestinian delegate to the autonomy talks with Israel concerning the occupied territories and Gaza, recently told a Turkish newspaper something that could be said equally of Lebanon: "Nobody except Palestinians wants a democratic Palestine." Her concern for human rights in Palestine was the reason she refused Yasser Arafat's offer of a political appointment in the newly autonomous Palestinian authority.

Of Israel's conduct toward the new Palestinian entity, she says that it "continues to act on the logic of an occupying power. . . . [Palestinians] have neither sovereignty nor true territorial control. We do not even have freedom to move about."

Again, the result is the unwanted one. She says that after the Hamas terrorist bombings earlier this year, "Israel's decision to seal off the territories and impose an embargo did not cause people to react against Hamas but against Israel and the Palestinian authority. Yet at the time the attacks took place people had been turning against Hamas. When Israel chose to punish the people collectively, reactions changed."

Israel's is the classic problem of a powerful state attempting to deal with politically motivated guerrillas and terrorists. Unable to come to grips directly with Hamas and Hezbollah, it tries to control them by punishing the society in which they function, in the Palestinian territories and in Lebanon. It is a corrupting policy, unsustainable in a civilized society. It also fails to work. This is Israel's dilemma.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 5/02/96

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