Arafat, Barak feel weight of Lebanon

May 25, 2000|By Shibley Telhami

THE IMAGES were strikingly different.

As Israeli forces suddenly pulled out of South Lebanon and their allies in the South Lebanon Army surrendered or escaped, the gates of the notorious Khiam Prison were opened and all the Lebanese prisoners were released unconditionally.

By contrast, seven years after the signing of the Oslo accords, the continued detention of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners is challenging Yasser Arafat's authority.

While Lebanese celebrated Israel's swift withdrawal without a deal as a "glorious victory" and Israeli newspapers described the same events as a "humiliation," Israelis and Palestinians missed the May 13 deadline for an agreement.

These contrasting images will sour the domestic moods in Israel and the Palestinian territories and complicate the negotiations between Mr. Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

The first complication is inescapable: The Palestinian public will ask whether negotiations pay. Mr. Arafat will come under dual pressure.

First, his militant opponents will have a new weapon at their disposal in gaining public support. They will have the added weight of a regional sentiment that, too, is celebrating "Lebanon's victory" and giving advice to those negotiating with Israel.

Second, Mr. Arafat will be under pressure to deliver an agreement quickly and his supporters will insist on fewer compromises. If Hezbollah got a full and unconditional withdrawal from Lebanon through the gun, how can Mr. Arafat explain significant compromise on the negotiating table?

But Mr. Arafat will not have an easy time of it with Mr. Barak.

While the Israeli leader needs an agreement with the Palestinians quickly to balance the conclusions drawn from events in Lebanon, he will pay a domestic price in the next few months for his sudden withdrawal.

Even as he delivered on his campaign promise to bring Israeli soldiers home, there is no escaping the prevalent psychology of defeat and humiliation. Celebrations in Lebanon and the Arab world, pictures of Hezbollah forces moving closer to Israel's border and sight of homeless allies feeling betrayed will overshadow Mr. Barak's meeting his commitment to his electorate. This will add up to a weakness that undermines Mr. Barak's own ability to compromise quickly.

The result of the Lebanon events is that they increase the urgency for Mr. Barak and Mr. Arafat to clinch a deal while they tie their hands even more. But the events also demonstrate how quickly tides shift and how leaders lose control.

Although Mr. Arafat and Mr. Barak have understood the need to move swiftly and have set deadlines to create a sense of urgency, they have negotiated as if they have all the time in the world and as if their "toughness" in the negotiations will gain them points with their publics. Instead, they find that delays in the agreement are costing them both much more than any gains they may get by not compromising.

Mr. Barak did not prefer a unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon and sought an agreement with Syria and Lebanon. Even after the failure of a meeting between President Clinton and Syria's Hafez Assad to bridge the gap between Israel and Syria, Mr. Barak and Mr. Assad assumed that a small window of opportunity remained before July 7, the target date for Israel's pullout.

The planned withdrawal was thought to provide incentives for both sides to make a last effort to clinch a deal. But the minute preparations began for such a withdrawal, Mr. Barak lost control. Intensified attacks by Hezbollah and the unexpected collapse of the SLA accelerated the withdrawal plans. The "window of opportunity" turned out to be illusionary.

In the long term, Israel has the ability and will find a way to address any threats on its border with Lebanon. The biggest problem in the short term will be the impact on its pressing negotiations with the Palestinians.

The challenges Mr. Arafat and Mr. Barak face have grown bigger. But if there is a positive lesson to be learned from Lebanon, it is that waiting will make the challenges greater yet.

Shibley Telhami holds the Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, College Park.

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