JERUSALEM -- Twenty years ago, Israel set out to rearrange the geopolitical balance
in the region by invading Lebanon. The result--for Israel, the Palestinians, the
United States and the peace process--was a catastrophe whose lessons should not
be forgotten by either the warriors or the peacemakers in the current West Bank
The circumstances of the two military adventures are eerily similar. So is
the cast of characters, as well as the high stakes involved for Washington. Israel's
reasons for taking the offensive in Lebanon and the West Bank were the same: to
root out terrorism. The world's angry reaction was the same. So much is unchanged
that one Israeli newspaper has called the current crisis "Sharon versus Arafat,
Today, as he was in Lebanon, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is trapped by
the forces of Ariel Sharon, now Israel's prime minister. Refugee camps look as
though they have been struck by an earthquake. The United States is once again
oddly uninfluential with Israel and less than accommodating to Palestinians. As
one Israeli columnist put it, rephrasing Marx, people should remember that history
occurs twice--first as tragedy, then as super-tragedy. In April 1982, Arafat was
ensconced in his Beirut fiefdom, running a state within a state from which he
could attack the Golan and Galilee regions. Sharon, then the defense minister,
wanted Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization out of Lebanon and asked U.S.
Secretary of State Alexander Haig for a green light to invade. Haig didn't say
yes; more important, he didn't say no.
"This is the 20th century. You can't just invade a country like that," Philip
C. Habib, President Reagan's envoy to the region, told Sharon. But Habib, like
Anthony C. Zinni, who has a similar role under President Bush, had no luck reining
Two months later, on June 6, Israel rolled across the border in tanks. Sharon's
planners had figured that they could clean up Lebanon in a week with no more than
100 casualties. Operation Peace for Galilee was to be limited, creating a 25-mile-deep
buffer zone in southern Lebanon and, on Prime Minister Menachem Begin's orders,
stopping far short of Beirut. Five weeks later, his top general rode into the
Beirut neighborhood of Baabda in an armored personnel carrier, hot on Arafat's
"Sharon lied his way to Beirut," Nicholas A. Veliotes, assistant secretary
of State and ambassador to Egypt in the Reagan administration, recalled recently.
"His ostensible reason for the invasion approved by the Cabinet was to create
a cordon sanitaire in the south; in reality, he had decided to seek to solve the
Palestinian problem by military force."
In Lebanon, as in the West Bank today, Israeli forces shredded Palestinian
archives, payrolls, even students' academic records. Infrastructure was demolished,
computers smashed. Terrorists and innocents alike were killed. Homes were blown
up and bulldozed, refugee camps besieged. To critics, it appeared that Sharon
was as intent on crippling the Palestinian spirit as he was on eradicating terrorism.
"I don't think the Bush administration really understands who it is dealing
with today," said Judith Kipper, a Middle East specialist associated with the
Council on Foreign Relations and the Center for Strategic and International Studies
"Sharon is a tactical tank commander, and he responds as one," Kipper said.
"No one would have condemned him for going into the West Bank with commandos to
go after individuals and groups responsible for terrorism. But a massive invasion
of this nature is, in the long run, going to work against Israel's interests.
And those of the United States. The repercussions are likely to be considerable."
In Lebanon, they certainly were. The invasion gave birth to the Hezbollah terrorist
organization. It brought Iranians into the Bekaa Valley, which in turn led to
the kidnapping of Americans. And it unleashed the phenomenon of suicide bombings,
first at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, then at a U.S. Marine barracks, where 241
Israeli officials dismiss parallels between Lebanon and the West Bank, pointing
out that today ruthless terrorists are operating inside Israel, not in some other
country. Indeed, although many Israelis, including members of the opposition Labor
Party, opposed the Lebanon incursion, 75% of Israelis support Sharon's ironfisted
actions in the West Bank, according to one poll.
Israel's siege of Beirut lasted 70 days and its occupation of southern Lebanon
18 years. The war claimed thousands of lives--half of them civilian, Lebanon says--and
destroyed Israel's image, perhaps forever, as an underdog battling aggressive
Arabs. It resulted in the evacuation of Arafat and his guerrillas to scattered
Arab nations. It led Arabs to view the U.S. as a co-aggressor, particularly because
the operation had largely been completed by the time Reagan called Prime Minister
Begin to complain of "needless destruction and bloodshed."
"I'll tell you what this war taught us," Arafat told an American journalist
the day he boarded a ship for exile to Tunisia. "It taught us that the real enemy
is the United States. It is against you that we must fight. Not because your bombs
killed our people but because you have closed your eyes to what is moral and just."
Some of Reagan's senior advisors favored talking tough to the Arabs and declaring
Israel a "strategic asset" in the struggle against the Soviet Union, a policy
that would have obscured the Palestinian issue in the larger context of Middle
East peace. They included Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, Richard Pearl, Peter
Rodman and James Roche.
For his part, Bush was hesitant to step into the Israeli-Palestinian quagmire.
When he did, critics say, it was primarily because Palestinian suicide bombings
fit into the context of the war on terrorism and because he needed the support
of moderate Arab leaders--who were critical of his inaction--in order to carry
the war to Iraq. Among Bush's top advisors today are Wolfowitz, Feith, Pearl,
Rodman and Roche.
Ironically, while Arafat jetted around the world like a head of state after
being forced out of Lebanon, Sharon's career was derailed by Beirut, where, in
the final days of the siege, a Christian militia aligned with Israel massacred
at least 700 Palestinian civilians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. A court
of inquiry said Sharon bore indirect responsibility, and he was forced to resign.
Many Israelis disdained him as a disgraced commander and the architect of the
Just as ironically, it was Arafat who almost single-handedly rescued Sharon
from political oblivion. By walking away from a far-reaching Israeli peace offer
in 2000, then overseeing an escalation in terror against Israel, Arafat made even
moderate Israelis yearn for an uncompromising leader who would stop at nothing
to secure their borders. The man they chose as their new prime minister was Sharon,
who had once suggested "transferring" all Palestinians to Jordan.
Sharon has defeated Arafat in the West Bank, as surely as he did in Lebanon.
But few Israelis believe that will end terrorism, and many are thinking back to
Lebanon, asking: "What's next? How do we prevent history from repeating itself?"
Copyright 2002 Los Angeles Times