Lebanon's Penance
(The Washington Post, Friday March 10, 2000, page A21 )
By Jim Hoagland
War has been hell for Lebanon. Now the tiny part-Christian, part-Muslim Arab nation must tremble at the thought of new calamities the pursuit of peace may bring its way. Lebanon is the not-so-innocent bystander of the Middle East. Its dreams and treasures have been destroyed in the crosscurrents of the 50-year regional Arab-Israeli war the Lebanese initially sought to observe, profit from and avoid. Instead they have been punished for their divisions, weakness and complaisance. Lebanon is a country that has come to depend on the cruelty of strangers, who can be counted on to ignore Lebanon's interests. Occupied by Israeli and Syrian troops, devastated by its own civil war and used by the guerrillas of Hezbollah to carry out Iran's jihad against Israel, Lebanon is more a memory than a functioning state.
But that does not mean that things cannot get worse. This is after all Lebanon. Even the promise by an occupying force to withdraw its troops contains dangers in the topsy-turvy politics of Lebanon. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has pledged to withdraw his army by July from the killing ground southern Lebanon has become. The promise is part negotiating tactic aimed at Syria, part harsh realism about a costly and deteriorating Israeli military deployment. Either way, this is a deadline Barak will not be able to finesse easily. He has lashed his hands to the steering wheel and pointed the car toward a political cliff.
Barak hopes his "threat" of a unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon will refocus Syria's Hafez Assad on U.S.-sponsored peace negotiations. These talks made headway earlier this year before Assad became nervous about press reports that spotlighted how far he had gone in exploring peace terms with Israel and broke off negotiations. Unilateral withdrawal would deprive Assad of a pressure point on Israel and of the ability to claim credit for getting the Israelis out of southern Lebanon if a peace accord is reached. Barak may also hope that an Israeli withdrawal would focus world attention, and pressure, on Syria's quarter-century occupation of the rest of Lebanon.
But Israeli withdrawal also carries a serious downside for Lebanon: Barak's aides have made it clear that Israel will shift back to highly punitive airstrikes against Lebanese targets in retaliation for guerrilla action across Israel's northern frontier. Having failed to seal the border with its own troops, Israel will now try to pressure the much weaker Lebanese army into doing that job.
The strategy failed in the 1970s and contributed to the breakup of the Lebanese state. It is not likely to succeed this time either. Airstrikes against three Lebanese electricity generating plants on Feb. 7 in retaliation for Hezbollah attacks on Israeli soldiers in Lebanon constituted a setback for Lebanese reconstruction efforts. And Hezbollah stands to be strengthened by claiming credit for driving the Israelis out of the south if Barak goes ahead with the withdrawal. This will extend the Islamic fundamentalists' lengthening reach over Lebanese society and state power.
The Lebanese army's ability to rein in Hezbollah may decline, not grow. Syria will not be inclined to reverse that trend. The outcome is stark for the Lebanese either way. If Barak's ploy succeeds, he and Assad are likely to cut a deal that will bring an even deeper entrenchment of Syrian control over Lebanon. If it fails, Israeli air raids and Hezbollah will undermine what little stability has returned to Lebanon since the end of the civil war.
But it is hard to blame Barak for bringing things to a head so soon after coming to power. He is right to recall Israel's troops home from costly and morally dubious occupation, and at the same time to warn of disastrous consequences if Hezbollah takes advantage of the withdrawal to renew its suspended attacks on Israeli civilians. The Israeli leader travels a path that is unpromising but necessary at this point.
Published accounts of his talks with the Syrians suggest that Barak has put an honorable deal on the table that Assad should grasp now. Not really interested in peace, Assad does seem interested in the U.S. support for a continuation of the Assad dynasty the deal could bring.
That gives the Clinton administration leverage on Syria that can be used in a noble cause: to begin a process of allowing Lebanon to recover its independence. It will not happen overnight. But America should give a fresh commitment to that goal. The Lebanese have suffered enough for their sins, and those of others.