The Rabbi Writes: Lebanon

The Jewish Humanist, August 1982, Vol. XX, Number 1

Lebanon. 

Ten years ago it meant wealth, fun and peaceful frontiers. 

Today it is a synonym for war, death and devastation.  

In 1975 an insane civil war broke out between the two nations in Lebanon. The Christian Lebanese fought the Arab Muslims and their Palestinian allies. The neighboring Syrian Arabs – who have always coveted Lebanon – first supported the Palestinians and then bizarrely invaded to support the Christians. When a truce is finally emerged, Beirut was divided and desolate, the Palestinians had the south, the Christians had the north, and the Syrian army was somewhere in the middle. 

On June of this year – on the 15th anniversary of the opening of the Six Day War-the Israelis invaded Lebanon. The PLO and its Palestinian army was defeated. The PLO leadership and its remaining guerillas were surrounded and besieged in West Beirut. The Syrians were humiliated. And the Israeli Army established a physical link with the friendly Christians of the north. 

Why did the invasion take place? Was it justified? What should be done to resolve the war?  

The invasion took place for reasons different from the official ones. 

The attempted assassination of the Israeli ambassador to Britain and the shelling of the northern settlements were only pretexts. The invasion had been planned before both events. The army had already been mobilized. The injury to the ambassador (by pro – PLO assassins) allowed Israelis to bomb Beirut. And the bombing of Beirut forced the PLO to break the truce and to retaliate by shelling Galilee. 

The main reason was simple. A serious of circumstances had arisen that made the devastation and defeat of the PLO a real possibility. 

Ever since its expulsion from Jordan, the PLO had established its headquarters and army among the 400,000 Palestinians in Beirut and southern Lebanon. Because of the weakness of the Lebanese government and the strife between Christians and Muslims, Arafat became the leader of a state within a state. And the PLO began to function as an effective Palestinian government in exile – with increasing International recognition. The Lebanese border with Israel – once the most peaceful-became the most troubled. With the PLO vowing the destruction of the state of Israel its defeat became very important to the Israeli government. 

The circumstances of June 6th seemed perfect for the achievement of the goal. 

The Syrian allies of the PLO (they had changed sides again) were isolated from the rest of the Arab world. Moderate Arabs like the Egyptians, Jordanians and Saudis despised this government. Radical Arabs like the Iraqis had a long- run feud with its leadership. And frequently Arabs, like the Libyans and the Algerians, were too far to help. 

Egypt, the largest Arab country, was at peace with Israel. Without Egypt no Arab army could defeat Israel. 

The Arab nations were diverted by a threat to their stability more dangerous than Israel. The fanatic Iranian Persians had defeated Arab Iraq in a war the moderate Arabs believed they would win. Meeting the threat of Ayatollah Khomeini who is determined to overthrow the ‘secular’ regimes of the moderate Arabs seemed more pressing than helping the PLO – especially since the PLO expressed support for the Persians.  

The Russians were diverted by expensive troubles. Afghanistan, Poland and an ailing economy made active foreign intervention an unlikely possibility. 

The American government was supportive of Israeli hawkishness. Both Reagan and Haig viewed the PLO as agents of the Soviet Union. 

The Israeli public was aching for a reaffirmation of its military power. The withdrawal from Sinai has created public anxiety and a sense of insecurity. 

For Arik Sharon, Defense Minister and architect of the invasion, the time seemed ideal to use the war to create certain ‘positive’ realities for Israel. 

At ‘first’ best, the PLO, Syrians and Israelis would withdraw from Lebanon, a ‘neutral’ Lebanese government controlled by friendly Christians would be established, a peace treaty with Israel would be signed, and the despairing Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza would accept autonomy status in a Jewish State. 

At second best, Lebanon would be divided. The south and northwest would become a Christian client state of Israel. The northeast would become a Muslim client state of Syria. The PLO leadership would fall under the total control of the jealous Syrians. And a friendly buffer zone would emerge in the North. 

For Sharon and for most Israelis the justification for the invasion lay in the posture of the PLO. The PLO has declared war on Israel and refuses to recognize the right of the state of Israel to exist. If indeed there is war, then the behavior of the Israeli Army is appropriate to war. 

The PLO cannot have it both ways. They cannot, with moral credibility, preach war and plead victimization from the consequences of war at the same time. 

But since justifications usually follow the facts, the practical question, right now, is not whether the Israeli army should have invaded Lebanon or having invaded should have pushed to the gates of Beirut. The practical issue is what should be done in the context of the events that have already taken place. Given the reality that the Israelis are in occupation of southern Lebanon, what are the pragmatic moral alternatives? 

The appropriate answer to this question requires us to recognize certain important facts. 

The PLO can be defeated.But the Palestinians remain. There are over four million of them-half within Israel and the occupied territories, half within surrounding Arab countries. They are unable to become either Israelis or unhyphenated Arabs. War and exile have given them a national identity. They want self – determination. They need a state of their own. 

The PLO is the only leadership the overwhelming majority the Palestinians recognize as legitimate. Even in defeat and dispersion they will remain the leaders. 

A Palestinian state already exists. Although its present name is Jordan, it was split off from historic Palestine and the majority of its people are Palestinians. From 1948 to 1967 the West Bank was part of Jordan. Federating Jordan with the Palestinian West Bank remains the only feasible solution to the Palestinian issue. Without Jordan the West Bank is not economically viable. With Jordan the Palestinians would have a real state to call their own. (Arik Sharon would love to rename Jordan Palestine. But he is unwilling to return the West Bank.) 

Moderate Arab nations, fearful of Khomeini and radical upheaval, are ready to recognize the right of the state of Israel to exist. The Saudis and Jordanians, like the Egyptians, fear the Persians more than the Jews. 

For the first time in Israeli history soldiers and civilians have publicly dissented from the war policy of the government during the progress of the war. However, The dissent should be viewed in the context of the polls which indicate that the overwhelming majority of the Israelis support the invasion decision of Begin and Sharon. 

The trauma of the invasion has focused the attention of the world on the Palestinian issue. International pressure may force peace negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians that Sharon never planned. 

Hopefully, the Israeli government will use its victory to negotiate with the representatives of the Palestinian people-including those leaders of the PLO who will now be willing to recognize the right of the state of Israel to exist.  

The danger is that Arik Sharon will not be restrained and the Palestinians will be offered no dignified alternatives to negotiate. It is also that Arafat and his colleagues will be too timid and the Israelis will receive no public acknowledgement of their legitimacy. 

The Lebanese Invasion may be a sobering turning point for both Palestinians and Israelis. With the help of American enemies may begin the conversation that ultimately has to take place.