Reclaiming Lebanon

July 03, 1991

Lebanon's army is trying to do what Israel failed to accomplish in its 1982 invasion of that nation. That is to drive the PLO guerrillas and terrorists out of southern Lebanon. But the motives are different. Israel wanted to stop raids from across the border, and punish those who commit them. The Lebanese government of President Elias Hrawi wants to reclaim Lebanon's soil, end the fragmentation that ensued from the 1975 civil war and restore Lebanese sovereignty.

That should provide no problem for Israel, which never had a problem with a Lebanon that was truly independent. But behind the Lebanese government stands its protector, President Hafez el Assad of Syria. His intentions are not clear.

Lebanon's reconstituted army has driven the PLO from military bases and into refugee camps near Sidon. More PLO fighters are further south, near Tyre, as reportedly are units of Hezbollah, the pro-Iranian terrorist group. Only when the army has cleaned them out will it face the moment of truth. That would be disarming Israel's Christian Lebanese proteges in the South Lebanon Army. And then it would mean barring Lebanese soil to Israeli armed patrols and listening posts.

If the Lebanese forces and their Syrian backers mean to have a quiet border, Israel would have no legitimate objection in complying. But if Mr. Assad merely wants to take over the incursions and have incidents of his own controlling, the border will bring a confrontation between Syria and Israel on a greater scale than the PLO ever mustered.

On the surface, the Lebanese attempt to obliterate the PLO state-within-a-state, dating from 1970, is welcome. It was made possible by the PLO's self-induced isolation from having backed Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. The PLO will probably be forced to move lock, stock and barrel to distant Tunisia, where it can inflict little harm on anyone, leaving the Palestinian refugees safe in their camps and no longer serving as human shields.

But to get Israel peacefully out of Lebanon calls for communication and credible assurances. This could best be arranged at actual meetings in which the two sides would come to practical terms. This would not have to be a politically over-blown photo opportunity. An understanding with Israel on the border is in Lebanon's interest, and Syria's.

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