The third anniversary of Israel's invasion of Lebanon passed almost without notice today. For all practical purposes, the war -- which divided Israelis in a way that no previous war had done -- is over, but no one here has bothered to announce it.
"The withdrawal is in its final stages," a military official said, acknowledging that the government would not meet its target of completing the Army's pullback from southern Lebanon today. There was no explanation for the decision to delay withdrawing the last units that remain in Lebanon.
Throughout the day, however, military officials conveyed the impression that the withdrawal was complete. "The withdrawal is actually over, but some troops will continue to go in and out," Maj. Gen. Ori Orr, commander of Israeli troops in Lebanon, told The Associated Press at a party for returning soldiers just south of the border.
Several hundred Israeli soldiers reportedly were still in Lebanon today and some will remain there to assist the Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army.
As a result, the Army's withdrawal will not be total, at least not in the near future. But Israel's three-year adventure in Lebanon, "The War That Went Wrong" as The Jerusalem Post termed it in a headline last week, is over, and the public knows it. "Parents Against Silence," one of the antiwar organizations spawned by the conflict, disbanded yesterday.
As of today, the third anniversary of the invasion, the war in Lebanon cost the lives of 654 Israeli soldiers, and brought wounds to 3,873 others. Four are still missing.
The intangible costs of the war -- political, military, economic and psychological -- are hard to measure, but there is little doubt among Israelis that they have been significant and their impact will linger.
The official end to the war that was called Operation Peace for Galilee, whenever it is declared, is not likely to be viewed here as a date of great importance. In part, this is due to recognition that Israel, through its assistance to the South Lebanon Army, will remain directly involved in southern Lebanon. But it is also because the real end to the war, and to Israel's dream of transforming the political reality of the Middle East, came long ago.
At the latest, it came last summer, when a deeply divided electorate here grudgingly returned the opposition Labor Party to a semblance of power, in partnership with the right-wing Likud bloc that had launched the war. The national unity government they were forced to form by the deadlocked election was feeble and divided on many issues, including the wisdom of the invasion, but the new prime minister, Shimon Peres of Labor, had a clear mandate to get Israel out of Lebanon, the sooner the better.
But the real end of the war was probably even earlier, perhaps February 1984, when Lebanon, under pressure from Syria, renounced the troop withdrawal accord it had reached with Israel the previous May. The collapse of this agreement robbed Israel of any hope of achieving political gains from the conflict, and certified that Syria, not Israel, dominated Lebanon, leaving Israelis to wonder what was the point of continuing the occupation.
The beginning of the end came in September 1982, just three months after the invasion, when Lebanese Christian Phalangist militiamen massacred hundreds of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps near Beirut. The Phalangists were Israel's allies and entered the camps with the approval of the Israeli Army and government, causing Israel to be accused of complicity in the killings. The event revolted the Israeli public, galvanizing opposition to the war that had been gradually building that first summer as a supposedly limited operation to clear southern Lebanon of Palestinian guerrillas expanded to the point that Israeli soldiers roamed the streets of an Arab capital.
From the high point of the invasion and the dramatic Israeli Air Force victories over Syrian planes and missile batteries, to the abrupt low point of the Beirut massacre and all the events that followed, the Israeli public has been on a three-year emotional roller coaster in Lebanon that has left it exhausted. Public opinion polls taken by the Dahaf Institute in Tel Aviv and published in the monthly Monitin traced the public's slow but steady disenchantment.
In the first weeks after the June 6, 1982, invasion, 84 percent of the Israeli public said it was right to go to war while only 13 percent opposed. By the end of 1982, the war was supported by 64 percent of the public. A year later, 51 percent of Israelis had turned against it.
In the latest poll, in May, 36 percent of the public still said it was right to launch the war in 1982 and 60 percent said it was wrong. Significantly, 75 percent said the war was a failure.
This being the public mood, it was not surprising that last week the parliament turned back an attempt to establish an official inquiry commission into the origins and conduct of the war. Worn down by the experience of the past three years, public and politicians have little inclination to open all the old wounds so soon.
But the legacy of Lebanon will not be erased by parliamentary fiat. This was made clear last month, long after the real end of the war, when Israel was asked to pay anew for its decision to invade Lebanon. The payment came in the form of the release of 1,150 Arab prisoners, many of them convicted murderers and terrorists, in return for the release of three captured Israeli soldiers.
The exchange was widely seen here as undermining Israel's policy of never compromising with terrorists, setting a troubling precedent. It was made even more galling by the fact that two of the three Israeli soldiers who were freed were among a group of eight who were captured under circumstances that Army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Moshe Levy said ordinarily would have called for their courts-martial.
Moreover, more than 600 of the released prisoners were allowed to return to homes in Israel and the West Bank and Gaza Strip, where their presence created a security problem that includes fear of reprisals by Jewish militants.
"The exchange of prisoners is additional concrete proof of the scathing defeat we sustained in Lebanon," wrote Zeev Schiff, military editor of the independent newspaper Haaretz and a critic of the war from the outset.
Some of the other costs of the war long have been evident to the public. The roots of Israel's economic crisis predate the invasion, but the billions of dollars spent on the war and the occupation in Lebanon have accelerated Israel's economic decline.
It is also generally acknowledged now that Lebanon was a damaging experience for the Israeli Army, which won the battles of 1982 but could not win the larger strategic war, the first such "defeat" in its history. At the end of the occupation, during which morale and training levels steadily declined, Israeli soldiers were hunkered down in fortified positions, waiting out the last weeks before their release.
Did anything good for Israel come from the war? Two things did, in the view of Shlomo Avineri, Hebrew University political science professor and a director general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry under Labor Party governments.
The first, he said, is an acute new sense of "the limits of power," within the government and the public, that should make Israeli foreign and military policy far more cautious in the immediate future. For all of its military power -- still unmatched in the Middle East -- the three years reminded Israel that it is still a small Jewish state in an overwhelmingly Arab part of the world and that military power alone cannot transform the political landscape in which it seeks to survive.
The second gain, Avineri said, is in the renewed stirrings of interest in Middle East peace negotiations. It was significant that on the third anniversary of the invasion, the Israeli government's attention was refocused on the West Bank and the possibility of negotiations over the future of that territory and the Gaza Strip with King Hussein of Jordan.
In the view of Avineri and others, Hussein's reported commitment to enter direct peace talks with Israel, and his claim that Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat supports this course, are an unintended outgrowth of the war.
Deprived of its military bases in southern Lebanon, deeply divided politically and threatened by Syrian-backed rebels, Arafat's mainline Fatah wing of the PLO made peace with its old enemy, Hussein, because it had nowhere else to turn.
If, against considerable odds and a history of disappointments, a weakened but not defeated Arafat finally agrees to peace talks between Israel on one side and the Jordanians and Palestinians on the other, it will represent the supreme irony of Operation Peace for Galilee and the final slap in the face to its principal architects, Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon.
Begin, then prime minister, and Sharon, then defense minister, planned the war to preclude just such a possibility. Beyond the initial goal of destroying the PLO's military power in southern Lebanon, they sought to eradicate the PLO as a political force in the Middle East, to bury the "Palestinian problem" and ensure Israel's retention of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
"The expulsion [from Beirut] of the PLO terrorists started today," Sharon declared in August 1982. "Once all of the PLO terrorists are completely expelled from Beirut, a new era will start for peaceful coexistence between the Palestinian Arabs and Israel, and for future peace between Lebanon and Israel."
Last week, in a retrospective program on the war broadcast by Israeli television, an Israeli present at the beginning of the entanglement in Lebanon passed judgment on Sharon's "new era."
"I think it was a little naive to talk about a new order in Lebanon," said Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, a member of parliament who, as an Army officer in the mid-1970s, was a key operative in forming Israel's fateful alliance with the Lebanese Christians.
"It is true that we destroyed the PLO's military infrastructure," he said. "And I think it will take the PLO almost a decade to establish such an infrastructure again. But we didn't destroy the PLO. You cannot destroy the PLO."
About Lebanon, Ben-Eliezer added, in a weary voice that echoed a new national consensus: "We have to understand that the time has come for us to go back, to withdraw completely. We want to go back."