Like failed marriages, cease-fires in the Middle East historically have a dynamic of recrimination that far outstrips the event.
"You keep promising all the time that the Israeli Army won't advance," U.S. special envoy Philip C. Habib was said to have complained recently to Prime Minister Menachem Begin. "But the cease-fire there is the most flexible creature I've seen. It keeps moving all the time. It has legs or something."
For their part, the Israelis place the blame squarely on the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Syrian Army for a series of cease-fire breakdowns that have prolonged the war in Lebanon.
Indeed, it has been alleged by Israel that the July 24, 1981 cross-border cease-fire--that Habib arranged between Israel and the PLO to end the miniwar of attrition last summer--would be intact today were it not for more than 150 violations by Palestinian guerrillas.
While sorting out the truth of the allegations remains as difficult as ever, recent history in the Middle East suggests at the least that the Israelis have been adept at taking tactical advantage of cease-fires, while stoutly maintaining that their foes were responsible for the unraveling of truces.
The most dramatic case was during the 1973 Middle East war when Israel and Egypt acceded to a U.N. Security Council cease-fire resolution sponsored jointly by the United States and the Soviet Union.
Approved on Oct. 22, the cease-fire came at a time when the tactical situation was extremely advantageous for the Israeli Army. Its salient on the west bank of the Suez Canal stretched in a wide arc from Ismailia to a point beyond the Suez-Cairo road in the south.
But between Oct. 22 and the time another cease-fire was called two days later, the Israeli Army had consolidated its hold on Egyptian soil, completely encircling more than 100,000 troops of the Egyptian Third Army and cutting off its supply line in a protracted siege. In the process, the Israeli force broadened its control from 500 square miles on the west side of the canal to 750 square miles.
Each side accused the other of breaching the cease-fire first, but in the din of rhetoric Israel had won an advantage that was to weigh heavily in the subsequent negotiations for an agreement on a separation of forces.
Similarly, in the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel consolidated its hold on the Golan Heights after a cease-fire was declared on June 10, moving a tank column deeper into Syrian territory 10 miles beyond Kuneitra and only 23 miles from Damascus. As a result, Kuneitra was to become a major factor in the terms of the 1974 disengagement agreement negotiated by then-secretary of state Henry A. Kissinger.
In Israel's 1948 war of independence, when it had failed to crack the Egyptian front in the south and several Jewish civilian settlements were behind the Egyptians' line of advance, Israel agreed to a cease-fire and then turned the situation to its advantage by sending armed relief convoys to the settlements, gaining some ground in the western Negev Desert in the process.
"They put cease-fires to very good use," a Beirut-based Palestinian historian said during a recent visit to the United States.
"It is a classic tactic used not just by Israel, but by others, too. But they are masters at it. This is a violin that they really know how to play.
"They know how to create new situations during a cease-fire, so that earlier violations are forgotten as new ones pile up. Look at Beirut today. While ostensibly negotiating the terms of withdrawal, they have consolidated their position."
He was referring to a tightening of the Israeli Army's encirclement of the capital, particularly in South Beirut near the airport and east of the city along the Beirut-to-Damascus road. Israeli officials acknowledge their skepticism of imposed cease-fires, noting that in all of Israel's wars, the United States and the Soviet Union--each for its own reasons--have sponsored cease-fire resolutions just at a time when Israel had a clear upper hand militarily.
That, one senior Israeli official said in Jerusalem recently, is one reason why Middle East wars have been characterized by large territorial gains in a relatively short period of time.
"We know we have to move fast, because the superpowers will step in and stop it," he said. In diplomacy, too, cease-fires can be used to tactical advantage.
The question of besieged West Beirut, for example, reportedly was not dealt with in last month's talks here between Begin and President Reagan because the Israeli prime minister said that a cease-fire unilaterally imposed by Israel was still in effect.
Even while the Israeli invasion force was tightening its noose around the PLO in West Beirut during the second week of the war, and both sides were exchanging artillery fire sporadically, Israeli officials in Jerusalem were insisting that U.S. diplomatic pressure on Israel was irrelevant because the most it could lead to would be a cease-fire, and one was already in place.