Let us look again at Syria's refusal to cooperate with American diplomacy in freeing Lebanon from foreign occupation. Is it enough simply to organize pressure on Damascus for its intransigence? Some suggest that the Syrians will eventually yield and accept the Lebanese-Israeli agreement they now reject. But that is far from a sure thing. In the pause brought on by the failure of Secretary Shultz's mission to the Middle East, it is necessary to see if there is another way.
One possibility has been set out by Shimon Peres, head of Israel's opposition Labor Party. He would, quietly, set aside the Israeli-Lebanese agreement, which has from Israel's standpoint many virtues but one overarching flaw: at Prime Minister Menachem Begin's insistence, the troop-withdrawal part, on which the other parts hinge, does not come into effect unless Syria accepts it and withdraws in tandem. Thus has Mr. Begin made President Hafez Assad the arbiter of Israel's Lebanon policy.
Mr. Peres would take Israeli policy back into Israeli hands by withdrawing unilaterally and making other security arrangements--the Lebanese army and the multinational force in Beirut and the Chouf mountains, the United Nations and Major Haddad in the south.
There are some evident political as well as operational difficulties with this plan. It is the brainchild of an Israeli party mired in opposition. By accepting the Labor option, the Begin government would be yielding the very parts of the Lebanese agreement-- the political parts--on which it has relied to justify to an increasingly restive Israeli public why it pushed the war as far as it did.
Then, would the Peres plan make a difference in Damascus? That depends on whether the Syrians are playing the skunk because they are determined to stay in Lebanon no matter what, especially if Washington asks them to get out, or because they reject the present terms. There are hints that an unconditional Israeli withdrawal would be met by an unconditional Syrian withdrawal, but a heavy burden of good faith rests on Damascus.
President Reagan said Friday there will be "no reverse gear" in pressing the Syrians to pull out. Certainly the Begin government counts on the administration's standing up strong to Syria, a country that has frustrated American policy in Lebanon and on the Palestinian issue and that is radical and a Soviet client to boot. The question remains how such a course will settle things down in the Middle East and how it will spare Lebanon the danger--partition-- that is starker than ever now. In the review of policy the administration is undertaking before President Amin Gemayel of Lebanon and Mr. Begin arrive later this month, the hard questions must be asked.