Perhaps the most significant aspect of the clash of the Syrian and Israeli armies on the road from Beirut to Damascus was also the least noticed: both countries had entered Lebanon to prevent the emergence on the border of a PLO political entity or military presence. Despite strenous avowals of its devotion to the Palestinian cause, Syria in 1976 sent its army into Lebanon to prevent a PLO victory over the Lebanese Christians and indigenous Moslems. Syria's verbal commitment to the creation of a Palestinian state did not go so far as to allow one to emerge on its borders: it feared encirclement by radical forces in power in both Iraq and Lebanon. It would fight to prevent a truly autonomous Palestinian entity.
Six years later, Israel reached the same conclusion. The PLO forces pushed south by the Syrian advance in 1976 proved intolerable to the Israelis. Whatever one's judgment of the specific pretext for the Israeli assault on the Palestinians, there can be little argument about its strategic rationale. No sovereign state can tolerate indefinitely the buildup along its borders of a military force dedicated to its destruction and implementing its objectives by periodical shellings and raids. However deep their hatred for each other, Syria and Israel were in Lebanon for the same objective: to prevent the PLO from dominating that unhappy country.
It is important to keep this reality in mind in assessing the long-term consequences of the fighting in Lebanon. For it opens up extraordinary opportunities for a dynamic American diplomacy throughout the Middle East. It is neither desirable nor possible to return to the status quo ante in Lebanon, but neither is it desirable or possible to sustain the status quo in the West Bank. And events in Lebanon should enable us to overcome the existing fragmentation of our policy and to relate in a comprehensive approach the three great issues of the Middle East: the Lebanese crisis, the autonomy talks regarding the West Bank and Gaza and the threat to Western interests in the gulf.
One of the principal casualties of the Lebanese crises has been the Western illusion-- especially prevalent in Europe but rife too in the middle levels of our government--in all recent administrations--that the key to Middle East peace is to be found in a PLO-Israeli negotiation based on various formulae to "moderate" the PLO. It was always a mirage. The colossal effort needed to induce Israel to accept the PLO as a negotiating partner would have forced us to expend all our capital on procedures before substance was reached --even on the highly dubious assumption that it was achievable at all. Nor was it desirable. It would have given a veto on negotiations to the most intransigent element in the Arab world, the group most hostile to the peace process and most closely associated with Arab radicalism with least incentive for restraint. Nor is the PLO a suitable instrument to stabilize the Arab world. It is now clear that Arab support for the PLO has been largely verbal and inspired more by fear of the PLO's capacity for terror than by commitment to its preeminence. No Arab government gave more than verbal support to the embattled Palestinians, and even that lacked the traditional passion. Even Syria stood by passively until its own forces were directly attacked, and made a separate cease-fire while the PLO was being systematically destroyed. When the PLO desperately needed a cease- fire, it turned for help to moderate Egypt, whose peace process it had vilified and at the death of whose leader Palestinians had danced in the street.
American policy makers have reason to be concerned about the attitude of our Israeli de facto friends who use American equipment and stake American interests without prior consultation. This practice cannot go on indefinitely. Still, in this particular case, the results were congruent with the interest of the peace process in the Middle East, of all moderate governments in the area and of the United States. It would serve nobody's purpose to restore PLO control over Lebanon or Syrian preeminence in Beirut. The United States can have no interest in salvaging Arab radicalism or rewarding military reliance on the Soviet Union. The general position of the administration is wise and statesmanlike: to promote the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Lebanon, to reestablish a strong Lebanese central government whose authority runs throughout a genuinely neutral country. (The principle is valid even if, in the end, some small Syrian forces remain at the northern end of the Bekaa valley and residual Israeli forces remain along the border of Galilee). The auspices under which such an outcome is achieved are as important as the outcome itself. Lebanon can be another testing ground for proving that radical Arab regimes and Soviet backing offer no solution to any of the central issues of concern in the area. Lebanon thus offers an opportunity for Egypt to reenter Arab politics. Egypt can have no interest in the domination of Lebanon by any outside force, be it Syrian, PLO or Israeli. Its interests parallel ours and those of moderate Arab governments. Egypt can play an honorable role in helping to fill the Lebanese vacuum both in the intricate diplomacy that will be necessary and in contributing to the peacekeeping forces which must be established.
The West Bank Problem.
The Lebanese crisis creates an opening for American diplomacy to overcome the deadlock in the autonomy talks between Egypt and Israel. The United States must demonstrate that its proposed course in Lebanon is motivated by its concern to bring about a just peace in the area and not only to remove a threat to Israel's northern border. This makes it urgent that concrete meaning be given to the long-stalled autonomy talks regarding the West Bank and Gaza. Secretary Haig, in his important address on the Middle East in Chicago on May 26 has already committed the United States to such an effort. It is now necessary to spell out its content.
Just as our European allies must learn from Lebanon the illusions of their bet on the PLO, so we must face the fact that what the autonomy talks most lack is not a negotiating forum but a concept. The deadlock is inherent in the implicit assumptions of the negotiating partners. The Israeli government aims for de facto annexation eased by a modicum of self-government for the Arab inhabitants. Egypt and--if we are honest with ourselves, the dominant trend within our own Department of State--seeks to nudge the talks in the direction of a Palestinian entity, the inevitable chrysallis of a Palestinian state. Both sides have avoided the issue of borders implying a territorial framework for autonomy identical with the 1967 borders (minus Jerusalem as far as Israel is concerned.) Israel has evaded the question of borders to keep from giving the impression that the West Bank can be partitioned. Egypt (and those Americans supporting its views) for exactly the opposite reason: they do not want to impair the territorial extent of the presumptive Palestinian political entity. Negotiations are bound to founder on this incompatibility. Israel will be tempted to define autonomy in terms contrary to the plain meaning of the word; Egypt and the United States will seek through intricate formulae a goal in fact imcompatible with the Israeli domestic structure.
The following principles are needed to overcome this impasse:
1. The deadlock cannot be broken unless the territorial basis for autonomy is defined.
2. Within the framework of the autonomy talks, that basis cannot be the 1967 borders.
3. Since Israel cannot be induced within the framework of autonomy talks to return to these borders, nor the Arabs to ask for less, the autonomy talks can achieve no more than an interim agreement including Gaza and that part of the West Bank where most of the Arab population lives. The remainder can become an Israeli security zone subject to later negotiation.
4. As part of an interim agreement, special arrangements should be made for the Arab holy places in the old city of Jerusalem.
5. Such a goal can be achieved only if the United States spells out what it understands by autonomy in an interim agreement.
6. Just as Egypt can be the key Arab country with respect to Lebanon, so must Jordan take the lead on West Bank negotiations.
So far King Hussein has stood aside, conscious of his vulnerability, reluctant to bear the brunt of fighting the PLO and of resisting Syrian pressures, frankly dubious of American understanding of the issues or our resolve to deal with them. But he is much too wise to wish for a PLO state on the West Bank whose initial objective must be his overthrow. And he is much too shrewd not to recognize that the PLO defeat in Lebanon and the demonstration of the limits of Syrian willingness to run risks have given him a window of perhaps two years to take charge of his future. And since Egypt needs Jordanian good will in Lebanon just as Jordan requires Egyptian support on the West Bank, there exist the makings of a de facto coalition of moderate Arab states--provided America leads with decisiveness and imagination. The peace process in the Middle East can thus be given a new impetus, especially as events in the gulf create incentives for Saudi Arabia at least to tolerate and perhaps tacitly to support it.
The Crisis in the Gulf
The governments of the gulf face a fourfold threat: Shiite radicalism, Moslem fundamentalism, Iranian revolutionary agitation, Soviet imperialism. The last has been the principal focus of American policy although it is far from the most immediate priority of the countries in the area. To them the long-term danger from the Soviet Union pales before the immediate danger from the Iranian revolution. The Soviet Union is relatively far away and is in any case considered a problem only America can solve. Against a backdrop of the consciousness of their own impotence, the countries of the Arabian peninsula are likely to construe American pleas for assistance against Soviet expansionism as a sign of our weakness. But Iran is close and in its various incarnations fulfills all immediate Arab nightmares.
The focus of Iranian pressure at this moment is Iraq. There are few governments in the world less deserving of our support and less capable of using it. Had Iraq won the war, the fear in the gulf and the threat to our interest would be scarcely less than it is today. Still, given the importance of a balance of power in the area, it is in our interests to promote a cease-fire in that conflict; though not at a cost that will preclude an eventual rapprochement with Iran either if a more moderate regime replaces Khomeini's or if the present rulers wake up to the geopolitical reality that the historic threat to Iran's independence has always come from the country with which it shares a border of 1,500 miles: the Soviet Union. A rapprochement with Iran, of course, must await at a minimum Iran's abandonment of hegemonic aspirations in the gulf. There exists at last an opportunity for a strategic consensus of limited objectives between the United States and Saudi Arabia and other gulf states. It must have as its principal components an American guarantee of the territorial integrity of the kingdom and maximum support for its current domestic institutions. The Arabian peninsula is not the place to exercise our penchant for experiments with transforming other societies: the structures are too fragile, our understanding of the historical context and of what is attainable too fragmentary. Nor should this diplomatic effort be dramatic or even public. It must be based in the realization that the kingdom is supple as well as subtle, that we do it no favor to interject it into the forefrlks ont of every controversy, exposing it to the pressures of all contending factions.
But an American policy based on the independence of Lebanon, fulfillment of attainable Arab aspirations on the West Bank and protection of the balance of power and institutions in the Arabian peninsula would reconcile all our objectives with those of all our friends in the area, Arab as well as Israeli.
It would be the best bulwark against Arab radicalism and Soviet interference. It will require a strong American hand. But as Bismarck once said, in foreign policy courage and success do not merely stand in a causal relationship: they are identical.