IT WAS good to have the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia and Syria joining the discussions on how to end Beirut's ordeal. They did not simply sigh and ask Washington to solve the problem. Speaking for some part of the Arab League, they advanced a plan for a phased PLO evacuation accompanied by an Israeli pullback. At this point, it is not so important whether this plan, complicated and tenuous as it is, is the right one: any plan that could be agreed on and put into effect to save the city would be fine. What is important is that other Arab countries publicly accept a responsibility for getting the PLO out of Lebanon.
The Syrian attitude is especially noteworthy. Alone among Arabs, Syria has never formally recognized Lebanese sovereignty: if it does not actually covet Lebanon's territory, it feels it has a right to hegemony there. In the mid-1970s, Damascus fueled the internal Lebanese tensions that produced civil war and then contrived to lead the Saudi-financed Arab force sent in to contain that war. In the process, it killed civilians on a scale to make Israel's recent exertions look mild. Syria is the Arab state best positioned to aid Lebanon. If it makes possible the relief of Beirut by giving sanctuary to the PLO soldiers trapped there, and if it removes its own forces as Israeli troops also withdraw, Lebanon will be a new place.
The Saudis and Syrians desire, sensibly, to move on from the Lebanese problem to the Palestinian problem--the second opening made possible by the Israeli invasion. Their thought is that the United States should make contact with the PLO. They understand that the Americans are bound by their 1975 pledge to require, first, PLO acceptance of Israel, but they argue either that the United States should slip that pledge or that the PLO has in effect already met it. PLO figures in Beirut and elsewhere have been making the same point, sometimes suggesting American recognition as a payment of sorts for PLO evacuation.
Fortunately, the administration does not appear confused about how to reply. For evacuation, the PLO will get one immense prize--survival, in a form enabling it to make politics, not war. No other payment is required or deserved. There is a pressing need to bring a force fairly representing the Palestinian people into diplomatic play. But the right way to do it is Secretary of State Shultz's way: the PLO should accept Israel. That alone would enable --indeed, compel--the United States to bring its influence to bear on Israel to accept the Palestinians. Verbal shadow play that allows the PLO to continue avoiding the heavy obligations of political maturity is no help at all.