WORLD

The slow search for consensus

MICHAEL POSNER January 17 1983
WORLD

The slow search for consensus

MICHAEL POSNER January 17 1983

The slow search for consensus

WORLD

THE MIDDLE EAST

Political analysis of last summer’s Lebanese war correctly observed that the Soviet Union and its Syrian ally suffered a significant defeat both on the battlefield and in diplomatic repute. In the war’s wake, observers predicted, a resurgence of U.S. power would follow. But any notions of Moscow simply ceding its strategic interests in the Middle East were dispelled last week in Tripoli. Fierce and bloody clashes between proand antiSyrian forces killed more than 170 and injured hundreds more. Despite repeated requests from Beirut, Damascus is clearly not yet prepared to withdraw an estimated 30,000 troops from Lebanese territory. And, in Jerusalem, a terse Israeli announcement noted that two Soviet-made SAM-5 ground-to-air missile systems were under construction at unidentified Syrian locations. The SAM-5, never before deployed outside the Eastern Bloc, has a range of 300 km—close enough to strike Israeli planes in their own air space. The Kremlin’s willingness to sell, and presumably man, these systems was seen as further evidence of the Soviets’ determination not to be written out of the Middle East equation.

For the moment, the confusion in Lebanon remains Moscow’s best form of leverage. Syrian forces, sent by the Arab League during the Lebanese Civil War, have been camped there for six years. Despite repeated attempts to arrange a ceasefire, anti-Syrian coalitions of

Sunni Moslems have battled pro-Syrian Alawites for control of Tripoli for seven weeks. Many residential neighborhoods are without water, electricity and basic food supplies. “It boils down to the fact that the people of Tripoli don’t want the Syrians there any more,” a senior political analyst told The New York Times. There seems little prospect, however, of any early Syrian withdrawal, although President Hafez al-Assad last week dis-

patched special forces—commanded by his brother, Rifaat—to enforce a truce.

In the meantime, tripartite talks aimed at securing the withdrawal of Israeli forces from southern Lebanon limped through a second, inconclusive week. The main sticking point remains “normalization”—the diplomatic euphemism for relations between countries that are neither enemies nor friends. Israel wants a modicum of trade, tourism and other trappings of civilized discourse. But Christian-led Lebanon, needing Arab support to forge the domestic consensus on which its legitimacy depends, is reluctant to move too fast.

At one juncture last week, the chief Lebanese negotiator, Antoine Fattal, presented a plan that won Israeli approval. While Fattal’s proposed agenda never used the word “normalization,” it included topics that embraced its substance. But, having tendered the compromise, Fattal demurred, explaining that it had not yet been cleared by his

government. In the end, the proposal was withdrawn, after Prime Minister Shafik al-Wazzan threatened a cabinet

meeting with his resignation.

Despite the lack of progress, all sides in the U.S.-sponsored talks were hinting that agreement on an agenda was near. “I am very optimistic,” said Morris Draper, the U.S. negotiator. His optimism may be bolstered by the arrival of presidential envoy Philip Habib. Summoned from a Florida vacation last week by Ronald Reagan, Habib was scheduled to be sent back to Beirut to accelerate the pace of discussions. Signs of success in Lebanon, Washington believes, will add momentum to the president’s comprehensive peace initiative.

The converse is also true: failure to secure at least partial withdrawal of foreign troops from Lebanon threatens to render the Reagan peace plan a historical artifact.

Indeed, most analysts regard the next several weeks as critical to the U.S. proposal. Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak travels to Washington later this month, and other visits by Menachem Begin and Jordan’s King Hussein will follow. In the interim, Hussein and PLO leader Yasser Arafat reportedly met in Amman for a third time in as many months. One probable subject: the makeup of a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation to a new round of autonomy negotiations. There were also unconfirmed reports that the PLO’s National Council would convene this week, possibly to endorse Hussein’s formal entry into negotiations with Israel. And the U.S. administration’s all-purpose diplomat, Vernon Walters, was “holidaying” in Morocco, an hour’s flying time from PLO headquarters in Tunisia. Walters, former deputy director of the CIA, has previously been involved in secret negotiations with Argentina (during the Falklands War), Angola and the Vatican.

More publicly, the White House last week welcomed Israeli President Yitzhak Navon for what was billed as a private visit. The Israeli presidency is a ceremonial post, but Navon has been contemplating a return to political life, perhaps as a challenge to Begin in the next election. But he stoutly refused to be drawn into even implied criticism of the Begin government: “I get paid not to think aloud,” he told a National Press Club audience, adding that his final decision would be announced next month.

His hosts, meanwhile, were properly discreet. The administration wanted to avoid any suggestion that it prefers more pliable leadership in Israel; the very intimation would likely strengthen Begin’s hand. At the same time, Washington would not mind in the least if U.S. Jewry and Israelis recognized that alternatives do exist. The general feeling, however, is that Navon will pass up a political bid, opting instead for a second five-year term as president.

However, Navon did leave one disquieting message with Ronald Reagan. Israel’s peace with Egypt, he said, was now frozen, and the Egyptian press was filled with anti-Semitic articles and cartoons that “remind us of our worst times.” Other Israelis have similarly decried the steady decline in bilateral relations with Cairo. “If this is the result, if this is the model for peace,” Navon pointedly warned, Israel’s appetite for peace with other Arab neighbors would be easily suppressed.

-MICHAEL POSNER in Washington, with Eric Silver in Jerusalem.

Eric Silver