Arafat and Sharon should pay us back

Adversaries: After decades of bloodshed, two abiding Middle East enemies must now be serious about making peace.

September 23, 2001|By G. Jefferson Price III | G. Jefferson Price III,PERSPECTIVE EDITOR

A month from today - Oct. 23 - will mark the 18th anniversary of the bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut. On that day, a truck packed with two tons of explosives, driven by a suicidal Muslim, hurtled into the barracks compound near Beirut airport and set off an explosion that killed 241 American servicemen.

Watching body after body being pulled from the debris, I remember wondering why America was engaged in Lebanon.

The Marines first went to help oversee the evacuation of Palestinian fighters after the Israeli invasion and occupation of the Lebanese capital. That mission accomplished, they left.

But within a month, a horrifying massacre occurred at the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut. Hundreds of Palestinian men, women and children were butchered by Israeli-allied Lebanese Christians while Israeli forces held the perimeter around the camps. America had promised to help protect the Palestinian civilian population, so the Marines rushed back.

Really we were there for some of the same reasons we are still fully and fatally engaged in the Middle East. The Cold War motivations are gone. But the other essential reason is the same: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The very characters are the same.

Ariel Sharon, now prime minister of Israel, was defense minister and architect of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. It was an offensive war in which Israel used U.S.-made jets to demolish Beirut to such a degree that President Ronald Reagan called the Israelis and told them to cut it out. Sharon hatched Israel's alliance with the Lebanese Christian warlord Bashir Gemayel, whose assassination incited the massacres at Sabra and Shatila. Sharon was forced to resign as defense minister after an Israeli inquiry held him indirectly responsible for the massacres.

Yasser Arafat was then, as he is now, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization and acknowledged leader of the Palestinians. Most Lebanese were happy to see the back of Arafat when he and his fighters were evacuated from Beirut in August 1982 and sailed off to Tunisia. He had turned Lebanon into a Palestinian stronghold, using it as a launching place for attacks against Israel, while his henchmen engaged in extortion and other sorts of thuggery.

To say that the United States has not done enough for the Palestinians would be to ignore that the Marines went to Beirut to help ensure the safe evacuation of Arafat and his men in 1982 and that they returned after his people were massacred a month later. (The mission went awry when the Americans engaged in rebuilding Lebanon's army and became identified as the allies of the very Christians who had been Israel's allies.)

It would also ignore that the United States helped Arafat get out of his Elba in Tunis and helped him reach the gates of Jerusalem.

Addressing Congress and the nation Thursday night, President Bush sounded extraordinarily clearheaded, determined, even eloquent. He made a lot more sense than President Reagan did in 1983 after the Marine barracks bombing. Two days after that bombing, Reagan invaded the Caribbean island of Grenada. It was one of the most dubious military adventures of the Cold War, but it did manage to distract attention from Beirut.

In the wake of the horrendous terrorist attacks against America 12 days ago, the Bush administration, understandably and justifiably, wants to punish and eradicate the parties that are responsible for this act of war against the United States and its people. The president succeeded Thursday night in defining America's goals and rallying the nation to a severe and murky task.

Given America's position, there may be an opportunity for the Bush administration to compel the Palestinians and the Israelis to stop the fighting and get back to talking peace.

Could Arafat and Sharon resist such a demand? Possibly not, if Arafat were told that this may be his last chance, that he has to throw the full force of his administration - from what it says to what it does - into eliminating cells that have been terrorizing Israelis and interfering with the peace process.

And possibly not, if Washington were also to forcefully remind Israel that it was not given American fighter bombers and attack helicopters to assault Palestinian towns. It was given those weapons to defend against enemy neighbors. Two of those - Egypt and Jordan - have made peace and the other two - Syria and Lebanon - still pose a threat.

America's current condition could give an extraordinary impetus to a revival of the peace process, if the people we have been trying to help were told to help us now.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell has made frantic calls to the Palestinians and the Israelis beseeching them to cool down. Now President Bush should address these irreconcilable adversaries as forcefully as he did the nation Thursday night, warning them that they've got to make a deal and hold to it or face the consequence of an American posture forever altered by what happened on Sept. 11.

The United States has poured billions upon billions of dollars, years of energy and diplomacy into getting these two enemies to make peace. It's payback time.

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