Shiite terrorists kill Israeli occupiers of southern Lebanon. The Israelis strike back with operation "Iron Fist." The United States vetoes a United Nations resolution condemning Israel exclusively. The Shiites vow vengeance against the United States. American diplomats hunker down behind barricades or retreat to safe havens. Anti-Americanism is inflamed. U.S. influence in a critically strategic area is diminished.
There are crazy and/or uncontrollable elements in all this. But the Israeli policy to lash back and to drag out its withdrawal from Lebanon is controllable. And its effect on the ability of the United States to maintain an effective presence and protect its wider interest in the Middle East is inescapable. The question comes down, then, to whether the Israelis would not be wiser to cut their losses nd run -- in their interests as well as ours.
The Israeli decision to abandon a bankrupt mission has been made. But the Israelis insist that to accelerate their withdrawal in the face of stepped-up terrorist attacks would be to reward and encourage terrorism. The argument has a familiar, hollow ring when you remember that it was made by the Reagan administration just before it decided to cut its losses and remove the Marines to ships offshore. What was prudent for the Americans a year ago would be no less prudent for the Israelis today. But if that's the counsel the Reagan administration is giving Israel now, there's little evidence that the Israelis are listening.
Thus do the recent events in Lebanon demonstrate in a small way what the whole fiasco of the Israeli invasion demonstrates in a large way: There is a "special" U.S.-Israeli relationship deeply rooted in a moral U.S. commitment to the security of the Jewish state, but there is no U.S.-Israeli partnership in any true sense of the word. With rare exceptions over the years, there has been singular U.S. permissiveness.
Alone among nations with which the United States claims "strategic relations," Israel is licensed to define its own interests without consideration for American interests. I am not talking about any strong-arm pressures or some U.S. right to dictate Israeli policy, bought and paid for by annual military and economic aid measured in the billions.
I am talking about a partnership that is skewed in exactly the opposite way: an almost reflexive American submission to Israeli policies. The all-too-common consequence has been to compromise whatever useful role the United States can play in the Arab world. That's been the story of the Lebanese experience from the start.
In 1981 U.S. special envoys had removed the direct threat to Israel from the forces of the Palestine Liberation Organization in southern Lebanon by negotiating a cease-fire across the Lebanese-Israeli northern frontier. For 11 months, the cease-fire was a success on its own terms. No shells from Lebanon were falling on Israeli towns in the Galilee when the Israelis seized upon the empty pretext of an assassination attempt on their ambassador in London to break the cease-fire.
By its tacit approval of the invasion, the United States became an accomplice. Worse, the Reagan administration indulged the Israeli myth that the Lebanese Humpty-Dumpty of 1982 could be put back together just the way it was when the French decolonized Lebanon in 1943 and arranged for a predominantly Christian government that was to be friendly to Israel and to the West.
The folly was compounded when Secretary of State George Shultz helped forge the Israeli withdrawal, tied to simultaneous withdrawal of Syrian forces. The Israelis extracted a passage that gave it the look of a normalization of relations, if not a peace treaty. This was no part of Syria's understanding. Neither were the concessions granting Israel a degree of influence over southern Lebanon. This mocked the full sovereignty for Lebanon that was supposed to be the larger purpose of U.S. policy. So the Syrians had no trouble getting the Lebanese to abrogate the agreement.
Meantime, having run most PLO fighting forces out of Lebanon, Israel created a whole new enemy in the Shiites, seething under Israeli occupation in southern Lebanon.
The Israelis have known for some time that they must withdraw. Fourteen Israeli soldiers killed by terrorists last week were a harsh reminder. True, any way that Israel withdraws -- swiftly or slowly -- will leave behind a bad scene. But the longer Israel tries to pacify southern Lebanon with an "Iron Fist," the greater the odds of an even worse scene and even greater damage to American interests as well as Israel's.
An administration with a proper sense of U.S. superpower responsibilities in the Middle East would be making that argument forcefully to its Israeli partner. It would, that is, if this were a partnership in which both parties had established the habit of taking each other's interests into account.