Sacrificing His Core Supporters in a Race Against Defeat
If one looks long enough at recent events in Lebanon, one can see emerging the new face of Israel's Begin government, a face markedly different from the first government of Menachem Begin. That first Begin government, which toppled a decaying and increasingly ineffectual Labor Party, had its moderate and restraining elements whose crowning achievement was the Camp David Accords. The then Defense Minister Ezer Weizman, along with Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan, were the reins on Begin's often frightening rhetoric, steering Begin away from the effects of his worst instincts.
Weizman is no longer in the public eye and Dayan is buried. What has taken their place is a Cabinet dominated by a brash, recalcitrant, and pugnacious government whose chief symbol is Defense Minister Ariel (Arik) Sharon, Begin's sword and man of action. Sharon has taken Begin's rhetoric, his aspirations and his dreams for his own, and brought them to a place that closely resembles a political quagmire where not many Israelis, perhaps not even Begin, had expected to wind up.
Begin, a fanatic and firm believer in the concept of "Eretz Yisrael" (or Complete Israel), a stolid and implacable opponent of any sort of Palestinian national movement, has found the perfect instrument to carry out in vivid action what lies at the core of his rhetoric. Whereas the likes of Weizman and Dayan restrained, modified, and manipulated Begin's instincts, Sharon frees them and carries them to their logical conclusion.
As a result of the war in Lebanon, the Palestine Liberation Organization has been deprived of its independent military operations base. Thus it can no longer realistically avail itself of the military option. Politically, the PLO may have reaped some public relations rewards from its long stay in West Beirut, but, realistically, its role as a political symbol for the Palestinian cause has been considerably weakened. Nor will any host Arab country allow the PLO to establish itself as a military force in its land. As a political force, the PLO may find different homes in different Arab countries; but this, of course, is not the purpose of the PLO, which was established as an autonomous movement, independent of the Arab states and their politics.
The incursion into Lebanon has resulted in a total redrawing of the political map of Lebanon and a virtual occupation of southern Lebanon by Israel. Sharon is taking Begin at his word and even going beyond that by attempting to create a new political order in Lebanon, one divided among Israel, Syria, and Christian-Muslim Lebanese forces. By so doing, he has virtually assured a prolonged Israeli and Syrian military presence in Lebanon. The game has gotten away from Begin, the long-range strategist, who is being impaled by the forceful actions of his defense minister.
Ironically, in this intervention in Lebanon, which has had unexpected and long-term political and military consequences, lie the seeds for a new arrangement for Lebanon, a de facto division of Lebanon. This would mean, if not a politically stable Lebanon (was it ever thus?), at least a politically maintainable Lebanon divided between Christian and Muslim forces and protected by a tacit arrangement between Syria and Israel. Perhaps unwittingly, Begin and Sharon will have created a situation where the United States can recapture significant political leverage over Israel, its principal client-state in the Middle East, and come to terms with the Baathist-Syrian Alawi-dominated regime in Damascus. Thus Syria could be added to Egypt as an American asset.
The late David Ben Gurion once described Begin as "a romantic fool, essentially a windbag full of rhetoric and metaphors." How close to the truth Ben Gurion's judgment is can probably be best left to psycho-historians of the future. What is true is that Sharon has managed to hold Begin captive to his own showy rhetoric, and, in that sense, has managed to manipulate Begin just as much as Weizman and Dayan did.
Begin and Sharon share the same dream: Sharon is the dream's hatchet man. That dream is to annihilate the PLO, douse any vestiges of Palestinian nationalism, crush PLO allies and collaborators in the West Bank, tighten Israel's grip on the West Bank and eventually force the Palestinians there into Jordan and cripple, if not end, the Palestinian nationalist movement.
That, for Sharon and Begin, was the ultimate purpose of the Lebanese war. Sharon, with at least Begin's acquiescence, had other goals, most of which have been realized: the defeat of Syrian forces in the Bekaa Valley and the destruction of the Russian-made surface-to-air missiles (SAMS), the occupation of the strategically crucial Beirut-Damascus road and the encirclement of Beirut, goals which some of Begin's own Cabinet and certainly his political opposition were not privy to.
Sharon's plans, however, went further and are even now in the process of being implemented, almost willy-nilly, by the practical, physical results of the war. Those plans, and those results, which Begin may not have wanted or envisioned, are dictated by the military presence of the two most powerful forces in Lebanon-Israel and Syria-the near elimination of the PLO as a factor of any kind in Lebanon, and the fragility, ineffectualness, divisiveness, and chaotic nature of what is undeservedly called a central Lebanese government, which, whether Christian- or Muslim-dominated, will have to be propped up and protected by Israeli and Syrian military forces.
In effect, what is bound to happen, what is, in fact, happening, is a division of labor in Lebanon between Israel and Syria, which will produce a tripartite division of Lebanon. Before Israel embarked on its drive, the PLO controlled at least 20 percent of Lebanese territory. Another 45 percent was controlled by Syria, and still another 25 percent was controlled by Lebanese Christians, while Israel's surrogate, Major Saad Haddad, himself a Christian, controlled less than ten percent in the south. That equation has been altered dramatically with the near-complete physical and territorial elimination of the PLO in southern Lebanon.
The altered equation looks like this: A combined pro-Israeli Lebanese segment (Christian-Shi'ite and some Druze), dominated by the Phalange, controls most of central Lebanon, including Beirut, the Beirut-Damascus road and down to the Litani River, including about 40 percent of Lebanon. This area was formerly dominated by the PLO and Syria. Syria still retains control of approximately 35 percent of Lebanon, mostly in the north, and including the north central Bekaa Valley. Major Haddad's area of control has swelled to 25 percent and extends to Beaufort Castle and up the Litani River. Included in that territory is control and administration of Tyre and Sidon, the capitals of southern Lebanon.
This, of course, is neither an ideal nor an ultimate solution. But given the consequences, it points logically to an opportunity for a Syrian-Israeli rapprochement, which may turn out to be the unforeseen fruit of the Lebanese war. There exists, or will exist, a de facto political realignment for a new, though not necessarily stable Lebanon. Lebanese security and, to a large extent, Lebanese foreign policy will be maintained and dictated by the tacit-but politically viable-arrangement between the forces that now and in the near future will dominate Lebanon: Syria and Israel.
Given the strong presence of both Israel and Syria in Lebanon, it is logical to assume that each has a basis for negotiation, a basis that has existed since 1973. Both Syria and Israel now have tangible territorial properties up for exchange-Syria in the Bekaa Valley, Israel in the Golan Heights-and both are now in control of sizable parts of Lebanon. It is reasonable to assume in the wake of the war, which has left a bitter political taste in the mouth of Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, that Syria will continue to try to be the status-quo Arab power it has shown itself to be since the 1975-76 Lebanese Civil War.
Syria still is threading its way through the intricate world of Arab politics. Assad now knows he can expect little real help from the Soviet Union, and he knows too that the PLO would be a millstone around his neck. Assad can assume that a rapprochement with Israel will eliminate a military threat to Damascus, and he needs to consolidate his still shaky power at home while reinforcing his ties to the so-called moderate Arab world. He may be quite willing to sever his ties to radical Iran and the U.S.S.R. in exchange for, say, U.S. aid and military assistance and Saudi financial resources.
In short, the results of the war now emerging could turn into political and diplomatic gains for the United States. The prospects are not boundless, but an arrangement between Syria and Israel, normalization of U.S.-Syrian relations, maintenance of Syrian-Israeli forces to keep Lebanon from falling into political chaos, and a Lebanon free of civil war, would be of significant benefit to the United States.
The possibility of such a political result probably has not been envisioned either by Begin or his military alter ego, Sharon. It would indeed be ironic if the results of all their dreams and planning, if the final result of Begin's rhetoric and Sharon's actions, were to turn into this.
To find out just how these possibilities came about, it is necessary to look at the origins of Begin's first and second governments, how the two differed, and at the rise of Sharon himself.
The second Begin government is without a doubt the most hawkish government in Israel's history. The ruling quadrumvirate of Begin, Sharon, Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir, and Chief of Staff Rafael Eitan are all hawks in the Herut political tradition and philosophy, supported by National Religious Party (NRP) radicals, and sustained by the Eretz Yisrael true believers in the Renaissance Party. The Herut ruling party, the NRP and Renaissance form the base of the second Begin government's foreign policy and security policies. What the results of the June 1981 elections did was to legitimize Begin's new government and his foreign policy. His narrow victory was not exactly an overwhelming mandate; it seemed to indicate, nonetheless, that the electorate would at least allow Begin to fulfill his dream of a Complete Israel. The war in Lebanon is the logical outcome of that aspiration.
There is a profound difference between the current, or second, Begin government and the Begin Cabinet that existed prior to Weizman's resignation and immediately after the 1977 elections. Weizman was the last of Begin's first Cabinet members who continuously defied, modified or resisted Begin's most intransigent inclinations.
The pre-1981 and especially the pre-July 1980 Cabinet was a Cabinet composed of powerful, ambitious, and charismatic politican-generals whose roots, if they had any, were not with Herut or Likud ideologues, but lay, at best, with Labor. Except for Begin himself, the first Cabinet had no Herut nucleus. It never really worked successfully as a collective but rather was dominated by Begin's powerful personality. Yet, on the surface, the Cabinet when first introduced was both impressive and at times efficient, even though it looked like a political oddity.
Although the Cabinet was theoretically part of the Likud government, its strongest members were for all intents and purposes outsiders. Moshe Dayan, a Labor Party renegade, became foreign minister. Ezer Weizman, who was no Herut veteran despite having been Begin's campaign manager, became defense minister. Dayan and Weizman were vital forces in working out the Camp David peace formula for Israeli rapprochement with Egypt. When it came to negotiating Camp David's Accord B (on the Palestinian autonomy), Dayan's concept of a unilateral Israeli withdrawal of its military government in the West Bank and Gaza proved unacceptable to Begin. Dayan, having failed to persuade Begin of a new approach in implementing the Palestinian autonomy, resigned on October 9, 1979. Weizman lasted until July 1980 and then resigned over the same issue.
With the disappearance of Dayan and Weizman, there was no longer any serious opposition to Begin, particularly on matters of foreign policy and security. The muzzles and restrainers were beginning to come loose, as Israeli policy toward the Arabs and Palestine became increasingly dogmatic, aggressive and single-minded. This is clearly evident in the October 1980 decisions on the bombing of the Tamuz II Iraqi nuclear reactor, and in the shocking July 1981 raid on Beirut which, ironically, Sharon alone opposed, fearing that air attacks-as opposed to land operations which he favored-would provoke a very negative public reaction.
By October 1980, when the initial decision to bomb the Iraqi nuclear reactor was made, the second Begin government was in place with hard-liners Begin, Sharon, Shamir and Eitan at the helm. The most crucial military and political decisions after October 1980-the nuclear reactor bombing, the Syrian missile crisis, relations with America on the basis of a "strategic consensus" directed against the U.S.S.R., the Beirut raid, and reactions to PLO operations emanating from Lebanon-were made by this quartet, all of them pointing the way to the eventual invasion of Lebanon.
The most significant event in giving the second Begin government its final, harsh look was the appointment of Sharon as defense minister in August 1981. Sharon had craved the defense ministry before, and was turned aside. But this time there was no way Begin could refuse him.
The Begin-Sharon relationship goes back a long way, to the aftermath of the 1973 War, and it has not always been amiable, symbiotic and friendly. In fact, it was often marked by mistrust and betrayal. Sharon was very much aware of Begin's authoritarianism, his unwillingness to tolerate opposition or competition, traits Sharon shares but does not admire in others. Sharon refused to join Herut, even though, as a war hero, he was considered a political asset. To overcome Begin, Sharon in July 1973 created the Likud Right and Right-of-Center coalition, hoping that Begin's Herut would be swallowed up by the Likud electoral bloc. The exact opposite happened: Begin outmaneuvered Sharon, who left the coalition in 1974 in frustration, showing once again that Sharon is impatient with the political process. In 1977 Sharon began a flirtation with the Israeli Left and formed his own party, Shlomzion (The Peace of Zion). Electorally, Shlomzion was a spectacular failure, gaining only two seats, but those seats were crucial to Begin, who needed both of them to form his coalition government.
Sharon dissolved Shlomzion, joined Herut, and Begin rewarded him with the benign-sounding agricultural ministry. It became the first, but not the last, instance in which Sharon turned into Begin's sword. Begin invoked "Judea and Samaria" at every turn, but it was Sharon, in his role as agricultural minister, who turned the words into action, in his own inimitable style, carrying out Begin's accelerated settlements policy in the West Bank.
The settlements implanted by Sharon, a hard-nosed veteran in dealing with Palestinian nationalism, were, for Begin, the acting out of his dream of Eretz Yisrael. Yet, even then, with Sharon dutifully and perhaps more enthusiastically carrying out Begin's policy, Begin balked at the prospect of totally embracing Sharon. He did not offer Sharon the defense ministry that Sharon so badly wanted. The Liberals and Herut veterans opposed Sharon vehemently. Even Begin reportedly said, "Sharon would surround the prime minister's office with tanks if he didn't get the defense ministry." When the ministry became vacant with Weizman's resignation, Begin took the ministry for himself. Sharon was keenly disappointed and showed it, but, subdued, pulled in his horns. Tanks, as it turned out, were not necessary. Sharon's growing popularity among the changing Israeli electorate proved crucial for the politically beleaguered Begin in the 1981 elections. In a close election, Sharon turned out to be a critical electoral asset and was rewarded-in spite of much hue and cry from the Labor Party-with the defense ministry.
From the beginning, it was obvious that Sharon would be the blunt instrument of Begin's policies, the man who did the dirty work and, if necessary, the villain for any actions that backfired. He ousted by force the Israeli settlers in the Sinai because, pragmatically, a quiescent Egypt was needed for any future course of action in Lebanon. He further dampened the spirit of Palestinian nationalism by ousting pro-PLO mayors in the West Bank.
All of this presaged the Lebanese action, which had been in the planning stages for a long time before Sharon began to grapple with it, twist it, and enlarge it. In fact, the operation was the brainchild of two diverse individuals-Eitan and Weizman-and the 1978 Israeli bid to crush the PLO was stopped at the Litani River only by the intervention of President Jimmy Carter. The invasion all along had been carefully planned and nurtured by Weizman and the Israeli general staff, so that by the time Sharon took over the defense ministry, Israeli generals were already busy planning a large-scale invasion of Lebanon.
Weizman, it must be repeated, was different in style and aspirations from Sharon. Sharon encouraged Begin's most extreme and cherished ambitions, principally the destruction of Palestinian nationalism in any form, and, specifically, the total destruction of the PLO. Weizman had planned a limited operation to drive the PLO out of Katyusha rocket range and to widen Major Haddad's fiefdom in the south up to the Litani River.
Sharon has never quite understood the meaning of the word "limited." Upon taking the Lebanon operation in his grip, he widened its scope and planning. It took some time-there was U.S. envoy Philip Habib's patient but essentially inconclusive shuttle diplomacy and the resultant truce with the PLO, which, if it did not chasten Begin, certainly slowed him down. Two things, Sharon saw, were needed. The first was some sort of tacit U.S. acquiescence to a limited Israeli operation in Lebanon. Begin and Sharon felt they had secured this by allowing the United States to go forward with then Secretary of State Alexander Haig's "strategic consensus" policy, whereby Arab moderates and Israel would come under an American security umbrella, the first cornerstone of which was the sale of AWACS (airborne warning and control system) planes to Saudi Arabia. The Israelis later agreed to a watered-down, open-ended "memorandum of understanding" signed by U.S. Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and Sharon, which Begin and Sharon interpreted as the price for the AWACS sale. This they perceived as amounting to U.S. acquiescence to any subsequent Israeli military action. Meanwhile, Sharon went ahead with planning for the Lebanese operation, in typical Sharon style.
To the Cabinet, and perhaps even to Begin, the operation was presented as a vital security need whose time had arrived, which would move the PLO out of southern Lebanon, thus making the border settlements secure. To that end, Begin aptly called the operation "Peace for Galilee." Even liberals from both major political parties could not object to these motives, and Begin knew that within that kind of framework it would have national approval.
It is here that the ghost of Moshe Dayan and his like becomes almost visible. Sharon was dealing with Begin and with a basically civilian Cabinet which he (and there is no other word for it) hoodwinked. Dayan and Weizman, both generals, would have immediately known the implications of such an operation and where it might lead-straight to the outskirts of Beirut. But there was apparently no one-probably not Begin either-to question where all this might end.
Once the prerequisite excuse-the assassination attempt on Israeli Ambassador to London Shlomo Argov-was found, Sharon had his war, and this is where Sharon's tactics converged with Begin's rhetoric. While Sharon was Begin's perfect instrument to carry out his rhetoric, Begin, in turn, was Sharon's perfect target. Sharon interpreted the go-ahead for the Lebanese operation-which he had presented as "limited"-to mean unlimited flexibility. The evidence is that Sharon and his Christian allies were already on the move toward Beirut, long before his troops occupied southern Lebanon, a sure sign that he had planned to reach Beirut all along. Whether Begin was privy to Sharon's planning, approved it, or originated it is another question. Certainly it is a long way from "Peace for Galilee" to a "New Order" in Lebanon.
Begin soon found that Sharon was going beyond what he, the Cabinet, and even the General Staff had envisioned, not to mention the Americans, who viewed the possible attack on West Beirut as unacceptable. President Reagan's staff cabled Begin from Europe asking for a cease-fire. Cramped by world opinion and by the Americans, Begin warily halted Sharon's momentum and offensive into Beirut. But instead of a call for the mere cessation of hostilities, Israel received an American demand for the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Lebanon, with serious implications for the future. Who could remove Syrian and Israeli forces from Lebanon? Certainly not the United States alone, and the U.S.S.R.'s leverage over Syria is by no means greater than America's clout with Israel.
What Sharon succeeded in doing-which may have gone beyond the scope of even Begin's aspirations-was to create a new political order in an unstable Lebanon. What exactly is the scope of Sharon's New Order in Lebanon and for the Middle East? What are the implications of the Lebanese war for U.S.-Israeli relations? And what are the implications for the Syrian-Israeli relationship of the New Order arising from the quagmire which Sharon has created?
The prospects for the creation and survival of a stable Lebanese central government are, I believe, minimal, which accounts at least in part for the massive rearrangement which Sharon has engineered. Stability in Lebanon is at best an uphill task, a bleak prospect.
The existing Lebanon is a remnant of the old Ottoman Empire, an Ottoman system of Vilayats which was destroyed during the last Lebanese Civil War-instigated by the PLO-a civil war in which sides changed rapidly. From interviews with the leading political and military leaders of the various Lebanese factions-Christian and Muslim-one cannot help but reach the unfortunate conclusion that what passes for the current Lebanese government is a paper government which will never coalesce into the real thing. The old 1943 Christian-Muslim multi-ethnic pact is now gone, as is the Lebanese constitutional arrangement which reflected that pact. One cannot help but feel after talking to Sunni, Maronite Christian, and Druze leaders that Lebanon still has all the aspects of a society wracked by fratricidal and internecine struggles among warring factions of warlords, godfathers, thugs and traditional feudal leaders. Politically, Lebanon still seems like one huge group of extended families, each vying for its own interests, prejudices and concerns.
As Edward Shils writes in his essay, "The Prospect for Lebanese Civility":
Lebanon is not a civil society. It has many of the requisite qualities, but it lacks the essential one: the politically relevant members of Lebanese society are not inclined to allow the obligations which arise from their membership in the society to supervene when they feel that interests which they regard as vital are threatened. These interests are the integrity of their communities of belief and primordial attachments-of kinship and locality-and the opportunities and possessions of the constituent groups or individual members of these communities. . . . The consequences of these actions for the Lebanese society as a whole are too frequently regarded as being of secondary significance. . . . Lebanese society lacks that attachment to the national society as a whole, that sense of identity, the consensus that should embrace much of the population on issues that touch seriously upon the interests of the communities which make it up. . . . As a result of this situation, Lebanese society revolves around an empty center. It has representative institutions which are able to conduct debates, but they are precluded from making decisions.1
In short, there is no political there there.
Lebanon is made up of political groups, inasmuch as it exists under a system of zu'ama or clients, as Arnold Hottinger notes in his essay "Zu'ama in Historical Perspective." Hottinger describes the Phalange, for instance, as a political group that operates across a broad spectrum of Christian society, but he sees Lebanon as being dominated by a system of patronage, in the persons of za'im or leaders. He writes:
In contrast to political groups, groups like the followers and associates of the As'ad family, or Sa'ib Salam, or the Frangieh in Zgharta, among others, appear to me as client groups, not as parties. They give support to their local leader (za'im) in the hope of obtaining from him either economic advantages or help in their dealings with the authorities as circumstances may warrant. They vote and campaign for his person, not for his program (which in most cases is rudimentary or nonexistent). The political attitude of the za'im only enters into their consideration insofar as it has to conform with the general communal outlook of the group he claims to represent.2
This is a perfect representation of the fragmentary nature of the Lebanese political structure and the groundwork for what is actually happening in Lebanon now: a political division by outside forces. The political ascendancy of foreign forces in Lebanon has a long history, beginning with the Crusaders, the Arabs, the Ottomans, the French, and now the Syrians and Israelis.
The current war in Lebanon has resulted in far-reaching changes. For one, the Israelis have strengthened (however insufficiently) the power of the Christian Maronites, thus laying the groundwork for Sharon's New Order. The real fruit of the Lebanese war, however, is a more equal division of power between Christians and Muslims, neither one of which can gain power on its own. The Christians cannot survive as a political force without the protection and presence of Israel, which means a prolonged Israeli military presence. The division of labor already described is in place, although it does not by any means constitute a formal agreement between Syria and Israel, but has rather emerged from the logic of the military situation.
What exists is an opportunity for extensive and exhaustive American diplomacy to reassert itself in the Middle East, now that Lebanon is being maintained by Syria and Israel. The opportunity is nothing less than an arrangement between Israel and Syria, an arrangement that had its roots in the 1973 War and which could now lead to a more promising buffer zone between Israel and Syria in Lebanon.
Syrian-Israeli relations since the end of the 1973 War have been curious: cautious, promising and paradoxical, and, on the surface, highly illogical. But, considering the volatile Middle East, they have nevertheless maintained a certain stability.
The result of Kissinger's shuttle diplomacy between the end of the 1973 War and mid-1975 was, almost by accident, an uninterrupted ceasefire arrangement between Israel and Syria, which had not been broken until the Israeli incursion into Lebanon this past summer. As a matter of fact, during its tenure from 1974 to 1977, the Rabin Labor government not only accepted the division of the Golan Heights between Syria and Israel, but, somewhat reluctantly, encouraged Syria to occupy the parts of Lebanon being infiltrated by the PLO. Rabin's hope was that a Syria-dominated Lebanon would maintain and contain the PLO and that this kind of Lebanon would be a safer neighbor for Israel than one where the PLO was in control. This was, of course, when Syria was siding with Christian forces against the PLO in the interminable Lebanese civil war. In fact, Rabin's government encouraged Syria to come closer to Israel's northern border, in hopes that Syria would bring an end to the PLO "Fatahland" and pacify the Israeli-Lebanese border in the same way that the Israeli-Syrian border had been pacified after 1973.
A number of events changed the arrangement: the deterioration of Syrian-Christian relations, the new PLO-Syrian alliance, the emergence of the Begin government in Israel, and the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty. Syria reacted with a growing and solid support of the PLO. In order to solidify the security of Damascus, Assad installed the missile system in the Bekaa Valley, straining the tacit peace between Syria and Israel. But, it is important to note, Assad and Begin were careful with each other, with neither going over the edge. Assad showed considerable restraint during the 1978 Israeli incursion into Lebanon, in which Israeli forces studiously avoided contact with Syrian forces; and when Begin's government annexed the Golan Heights in 1981, Assad reacted with rhetoric and complaints, not with military action. Syria was acting as a status-quo Arab power, not as a belligerent and recalcitrant Arab neighbor. During all the Israeli attacks against the PLO, the bombings of Beirut, and even when Israel downed Syrian MiG jets over the skies of Lebanon, Assad was careful not to react with a military challenge against Israel.
The reasons for this are many. Assad's political strength at home eroded after Syria's occupation of Lebanon. His Alawi-Baathist government was faced with serious challenges from other minorities, challenges that grew into near-revolutionary proportions and culminated in the Hamma Sunni fundamentalist massacre in mid-1981 and added to Syria's increased "isolation" in the mainstream Arab world. Isolation here is a cautionary term because Assad never really severed his ties with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, even when he officially tied Syria to Khomeini's Iran in its war against Iraq. The Gulf states and Saudi Arabia did not view this as an anti-Arab action, but rather as an anti-Iraq alliance.
Even more illustrative of the fact that Syria is acting as a status-quo power is Assad's reaction to the Israeli attack against the Syrians in the east-central Bekaa Valley. At one point, between June 22 and June 28, when three Israeli columns moved toward Beirut, the Damascus-Beirut road, and the Bekaa Valley, Assad's four divisions were up against three and one-half Israeli divisions and had an advantage in tanks of 600 to 450. Yet Assad did not take advantage of the situation to "discipline" Israeli forces when they split into three vulnerable columns.
The situation, even though it resulted in the loss of the SAM missiles and over 100 planes for Syria, was symbolic of the continued arrangement between Syria and Israel. It never boiled over into all-out war, although the danger existed. Assad, after all, was fighting in Lebanon, not in Syria. Israeli commanders had clear orders not to violate Syrian territory. Neither side took real advantage of situations of military superiority.
Assad's chief objective in this war was for Syria to retain a territorial and important role in Lebanon, an objective he has achieved and one which Israel so far has respected. Syria still holds 35 percent of Lebanon. But, by putting up a respectable and somewhat costly resistance during the war, Assad has also increased his importance and prestige in the Arab world without resorting to total war against Israel. Assad is ever the realist: he recognizes that it is Israel, and only Israel, which can force him out of Lebanon. In addition, both military forces have a healthy respect for one another and know that an all-out confrontation would be costly in terms of casualties.
The pragmatic incentives for Syria to come to terms with Israel are many:
1. The conflict between Iran and Iraq has led to many interesting developments in the Middle East jigsaw puzzle, one being that Israel and Syria have found a common enemy in the person of President Saddam Hussein of Iraq.
2. The removal-via Camp David-of Egyptian military power as a counterforce against growing Israeli might.
3. The apparent Soviet decision to abandon the Arabs, which was so evident in its action, or lack of action, in the Lebanese war and in its tilt toward Iran in the ongoing war with Arab Iraq.
4. The ineffectiveness of the oil weapon.
5. The obvious impotence of U.S. power and diplomacy to affect events in the Middle East.
All of these factors, in addition to Assad's political problems at home and the sure knowledge that a real war with Israel would result in the division of Syria and its ouster from Lebanon, are food for thought for the Syrian leader. He knows that he can restore his image and prestige in the Arab world. It is also obvious to him that the Gulf states are eager to lure him back to the Arab camp, particularly since he still dominates 35 percent of Lebanon. It is an opportunity for Assad, and I seriously doubt he will pass it up. He appears to have already tactically and tacitly accepted shared hegemony of Lebanon with Israel.
For Israel, a stable Syria ruled by an Alawi clique giving lip service to Baathist ideology is preferable to an anti-Israel, Sunni-Arab-dominated Syria and certainly preferable to a Lebanon still dominated by the PLO. Sharing the rule of Lebanon with Syria guarantees Israel's northeastern frontiers.
Thus, if we look at Israel and Syria between 1973 and 1982, the drift is clear. They certainly have not launched an all-out war against each other. In fact, they have in a decade's time established tacit building blocks that, if maintained, could lead to a serious Israeli-Syrian rapprochement. Their respect for each other's military power and, despite some interruptions, their maintenance of a de facto status quo could be enhanced by their tacit but nevertheless joint condominium over Lebanon.
Theirs is not equal to the Egyptian-Israeli relationship, but it is certainly not unlike Israel's relationship with Jordan, with which Israel has maintained the status quo since 1967. Moreover, while Sadat and Egypt needed the Americans acting as mediators and guarantors of the Camp David peace treaty, the Syrian-Israeli agreement would require less U.S. help. Syria and Israel have already learned to respect each other's border security problems. Now that Israel has demonstrated that it is the military power par excellence in the Middle East, the Syrian incentives for confronting Israel have considerably declined. Yet even if an argument to the contrary is advanced that Syria is a Baathist Arab ideological regime, Syria's tactical alliance with Iran debunks this assumption. Syrian nationalism and pragmatism, the course chosen by Assad, forces it to consider Iraq a greater threat to Syria than Iranian nationalism. For that matter, when it comes to Syria's security in Lebanon, the Arab "cause"-the Palestinians-is not Assad's supreme concern.
By sharing the maintenance of Lebanon with Israel, Syria becomes Israel's partner. Thus, without U.S. or foreign intervention, the de facto Syrian-Israeli arrangement in Lebanon may lead to the elimination of Syria as Israel's last serious military adversary.
But the fulfillment of any such Israeli-Syrian partnership would be largely contingent on the resolution of the dispute over the Golan Heights. For Begin, the Golan is not part of Eretz Yisrael and is, therefore, a negotiable territorial item. The Golan is an element of security, not ideology. Begin's announced reason for his annexation of the Golan last year was the old "security" argument; but he basically went ahead with the annexation as a retaliation for the deployment of Syrian SAM missiles in the neighboring Bekaa Valley. At the same time, Begin made it clear in public that the Golan was not forever to be part of Israeli territory and that it would be open to negotiation in the future. The day when Begin's Likud government would be willing to surrender some of the Golan territory in exchange for a Syrian withdrawal from the south-central Bekaa Valley is not a sorcerer's dream but an act that could stem from the logic of the consequences of Israel's invasion of Lebanon.
The price the Israelis can dangle in front of Syria is both symbolic and pragmatic: Syria would recognize Israel, or at least maintain the status quo, discipline the PLO, and retain control of northern Lebanon. The Syrians would have to sever connections to revolutionary Iran in exchange for closer ties to the Gulf States. When it comes to territory, the Arabs have already shown themselves willing to negotiate. The Golan and parts of the Bekaa Valley are of value to Syria just as the Sinai was to Egypt, a tangible reason to come to terms, as in the uncomfortable but de facto division of Lebanon.
The war in Lebanon may turn out to be the last Arab-Israeli war, though certainly not the last war in the Middle East or the Persian Gulf.
Before examining the details of this opportunity for Arab-Israeli peace, it must be said that the PLO is neither an asset for the United States, nor for moderate Arabs, nor for Syria. It is an obstacle to peace, not an instrument of peace. Given the removal of the PLO from Lebanon, the seeds for a rapprochement between Israel and Syria do exist, as do the seeds for a viable Lebanon. I think this is indicative in Assad's reluctance to fight for the PLO and the Arab cause to the last Syrian soldier, just as Egypt had grown weary of suffering huge casualties in two wars with Israel.
It was the approach of Anwar Sadat, after all, and not that of the rejectionist Gamal Abdel Nasser which has been vindicated in the Lebanon war. Egypt, rather than a victim of the war, is now a key intermediary in the Lebanon conflict. Thus, peace with Israel can produce considerable assets for an Arab state, even a supposedly radical one like Syria, which could only enhance its influence with the Arab world and in Lebanon.
Assad can probably see this and has good, sound practical reasons for seeking closer ties with Israel, which will, not coincidentally, mean a closer relationship with the United States. Assad is still on shaky grounds politically in his home base, and is much more concerned with gaining and consolidating power and territory than with leading the Arabs against Israel. He knows that the Soviet Union is not the staunchest of supporters when it comes to the crunch and that the Soviets have probably written off their Arab clients.
The situation is ripe, and Assad and Syria have paid more than their token price in blood and materiel and can now move toward accommodation with Israel.
Implicit in this is an opportunity awaiting the United States. The so-called New Order, when looked at imaginatively and correctly, provides some leverage for the United States. The chance exists for the United States to turn Syria toward the Western camp, away from Iran, the U.S.S.R. and the Arab rejectionist front. It is an opportunity, very similar to what Kissinger created after the 1973 War between Israel and Egypt, to stabilize Israeli-Syrian relations, strengthen Lebanon, and beef up the Arab anti-Iran alliance, thus depriving revolutionary and aggressive Iran of valuable Syrian support. The real leverage that the United States has to offer is military assistance and protection to Syria and a Lebanon now free of the PLO, thus reasserting some U.S. control over events in the Middle East. U.S. diplomacy should not be limited to acting as the PLO's Salvation Army in West Beirut.
In addition, four decades of Arab-Israel and inter-Arab strife clearly indicate that substantial territorial exchanges can modify ideological proclivities, even ones as extreme as those held by the Baathist Assad and Herut's Begin and Sharon. The Sunni Arab world is facing its greatest challenge since Ottoman days in the persons of the implacable Khomeini of Iran and the messianic Begin. The Israeli nation is really tired of war, as is evident in some of the doubts that emerged during the Lebanon war. And a resolution of the conflict in Lebanon would be another way for Syria, the moderate Arabs, and the Gulf states to buy security against Iran.
Peace, in fact, is the hidden light beneath the rubble that the Israelis, Syrians, and the PLO have left in Lebanon. It would indeed be ironic if Begin's rhetoric, carried out to the extreme by the tactics of Sharon in order to solve the Palestinian problem, resulted in a peace which had been encouraged by U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East. One suspects that is not what either Begin or Sharon perceived when they launched "Operation Peace for Galilee."
1 Quoted in Leonard Binder, ed., Politics in Lebanon, New York: John Wiley, 1966, p. 2.
2 Ibid., p. 86.