Lessons from another Mideast crisis

March 14, 2002|By Jim Anderson

WASHINGTON -- There are striking similarities between Israel's invasion of Lebanon 20 years ago and the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and lessons from the past could help prevent future disasters.

Then-Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon and Prime Minister Menachem Begin were determined in June 1982 to end the chaos on their northern border with Lebanon.

Not only was the Palestine Liberation Organization attacking northern Israeli towns and settlements, the turmoil within Lebanon between the armed Palestinians and the various Lebanese militias was threatening to destabilize the entire region.

Six months before the operation, Mr. Begin and Mr. Sharon drew up a breathtaking plan -- "Big Pines" -- that would involve invading Lebanon and tracking down PLO fighters in Beirut's streets.

One danger was that Syria could be drawn into another armed confrontation with Israel.

In December 1981, Israel annexed the Golan Heights, which had been seized from Syria in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

With Syria's possible involvement came the danger that its principal backer, the Soviet Union, might use it as an entry into the Middle East.

It was that concern by then-Secretary of State Alexander Haig that led him to stand aside and let Israel invade Lebanon in June 1982 -- on the condition that Israeli forces not advance more than 24 miles into Lebanon to avoid clashing with the Syrians in the Bekaa Valley.

Mr. Sharon gave that assurance to U.S. envoy Morris Draper. But even as that assurance was given, Mr. Sharon had ordered the Israeli troops north to Beirut.

Mr. Sharon later told Mr. Draper, "Circumstances changed."

Mr. Draper responded bitterly, "Once, people believed that your word was good."

So one of the collateral casualties was a feeling of lost trust between Israel and the United States.

As Israeli forces moved north, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Republican Charles Percy of Illinois, warned the White House that his panel would draft a bill cutting all military aid to Israel.

The Reagan administration, in a symbolic but important signal, delayed the delivery of some F-16 fighters to Israel.

As the Israelis pounded Beirut with artillery and bombs, the chief U.S. envoy to the Middle East, Philip Habib, raged to Mr. Sharon (in language that the State Department echoed this year), "This is the 20th century. You can't go around invading countries like that, spreading destruction and killing civilians."

The Arab world timidly tried to intervene in 1982, always giving precedence to the U.S. role as mediator.

Saudi Crown Prince (now king) Fahd put forward a plan nearly identical to the one floated by current Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah.

Under the 1982 plan, "all states would live in peace" in the Middle East and Israel would withdraw to its pre-1967 war borders.

Mr. Haig was not impressed. He told Crown Prince Fahd that he did not regard his plan "as a practical peace proposal" since it was certain to be rejected by Israel.

Washington treated it about the same way the Bush administration has minimized the importance of Crown Prince Abdullah's trial balloon.

Another part of Mr. Sharon's strategy was to begin absorbing the West Bank and Gaza by means of Jewish settlements, in effect displacing the Palestinians.

In 1982, there were 14,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza. Today there are 213,000.

Finally, under pressure from Arab states, Yasser Arafat agreed to pull his forces out of Beirut. The Israelis, under increasing U.S. pressure, pulled back to southern Lebanon but not to the international border. The crisis ended.

Lessons learned?

In the Middle East, a vigorous U.S. role is required even if it is not popular with Congress. In the absence of such an active role, extremists in the Middle East take over.

A Middle East peace is not possible without the participation or support of the Arab states, and they will be prepared to come forward only if they believe the United States is acting as an honest broker and not as an advocate for Israel. This is particularly important now that the U.S. government is trying to build its anti-terrorism coalition.

U.S. diplomacy cannot be used as a fire brigade. The United States, perhaps with European participation, must be steadily involved before the heavy shooting starts.

During the Cold War, the escalation into a Soviet-American confrontation was always a lurking possibility. In the post-Cold War era, there are other dangers, including oil price squeezes and the loss of international support for the U.S.-led war on terrorism.

History does repeat itself in the Middle East, especially when some of the same people are involved.

Failure to pay attention to the past, especially to U.S. errors, is a prescription for new clashes. And the next clash will be with more destructive weapons on both sides.

Jim Anderson is a Washington-based correspondent who has covered U.S. foreign policy through 11 secretaries of state.

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