For Israel, the Specter of Lebanon Looms Large

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As President Clinton gesticulates in vain to get Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak back on a path to peace, the specter of Lebanon is beginning to loom over the West Bank and Gaza. Four Israelis and two Palestinians were killed in fierce clashes Monday, in a new escalation of violence that has followed Israel's decision last week to begin assassinating Fatah militia leaders it believes are orchestrating attacks against Israelis. Last Thursday's helicopter rocket attack on a local militia leader in Bethlehem reminded many Israeli commentators of their army’s tactics in Lebanon, and the association is an uncomfortable one for many Israelis. After all, they lost hundreds of young men there over the years, and were still forced to withdraw under the relentless jabbing of Hezbollah.

'Lebanization'

The fear of "Lebanization" of the conflict arises from the deadlock in the peace process. Neither Barak nor Arafat can afford, politically, to return to the negotiating table in the near term, and both sides have tacitly acknowledged that the Oslo process is essentially dead. Indeed, the White House's rhetorical switch last week from referring to reviving "the peace process" to talking of restoring "a political process" between Israelis and Palestinians appears to confirm that while negotiations ultimately remain inevitable, they may occur within a framework quite different from the one President Clinton has overseen throughout his tenure.

Until a new peace framework emerges, however, the impasse in negotiations leaves the Palestinian demand for an end to Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and the Israeli demand for security, to be pursued over the barrel of a gun rather than over a shiny table. Although the Palestinians lack the military means to expel the Israelis from the occupied territories, they are able to sustain a low-level war of attrition in the hope that the human cost of maintaining military outposts and civilian settlements in Palestinian areas eventually outweighs any benefit for Israel — as it did in Lebanon. And reports that Hezbollah has put its expertise and assistance at the disposal of Hamas and other Palestinian organizations may bode ominously.

Unwinnable Argument

While the Israelis have the sophisticated military and intelligence capacity to systematically pick off Palestinian militia leaders, that only tends to make the ground even more fertile for the gunmen. After all, last Thursday's strike may have eliminated a key Fatah militia leader, but it also killed two middle-aged women bystanders. Israel protests that the gunmen are hiding behind civilians, but that's an argument it can't win in the eyes of a Palestinian population that sees itself as resisting occupation, or in the eyes of an international community that questions Israel's continued presence in the West Bank and Gaza.

President Clinton still speaks hopefully about the prospect of sitting down to one last summit with Barak and Arafat before he leaves office. But with Barak — his grip on power hanging by a thread — feeling pressure from his generals to be allowed to act with fewer restraints and Arafat's political authority now routinely flouted even in the ranks of his own Fatah organization, neither man appears particularly keen on a lame-duck Camp David reunion.