Making intelligent decisions about the Middle East gets harder by the minute fragile status quos are shattered even before they have fully emerged.
The internal dispute of the PLO has thrown the fattest twist into Lebanon's now standard turmoil, and has already claimed at least 250 lives--many of them civilian. Backed by Syria, Palestinians opposing Yasser Arafat have pushed the guerrilla leader to his last stronghold outside Tripoli.
Arafat has long been an anathema to those who view his terrorist tactics and steadfast refusal to accept Israel's existence as the obstacle to a negotiated settlement in the Middle East. Because of his intransigence, Arafat cannot expect (nor does be deserve) any country to come to his aid as his forces crumble in Tripoli.
But the painful irony is that as Arafat goes down, he takes with him as hostage much of the hope for Palestinian nationalism. His opponents within the PLO do not, like the U.S. believe Arafat is too radical, but rather that he has "sold out" the Palestinian cause. These extremists oppose even Arafat's hints at negotiation and contend that Palestinian interests dictate the destruction of Israel.
Some believe Arafat's defeat would actually pave the way lot a negotiated settlement since it would free Jordan's King Hussein from his 1979 commitment to honor the PLO as the sole representative of the Palestinian people. Thus freed, they argue. Hussein could negotiate on behalf of the Palestinians.
There is little reason to believe, however, that Hussein would be eager to take up this responsibility, particularly in light of the fact that any comprehensive settlement would probably dictate offering at least some Jordanian territory for a Palestinian homeland. Furthermore, any settlement negotiated by Hussein would be meaningless if the PLO forces that now oppose Arafat did not endorse it--hardly a likely scenario. The extremist faction, through terrorist attacks, could easily disrupt tentative settlement.
The latest conflict, therefore, threatens to throw Middle East settlement attempts even farther off course. More tragic still, is that this battle for control of the PLO is being waged in Lebanon, where death and violence are in no short supply. Long plagued by internal conflicts between Druse and Syrianbacked Christians, Lebanon has become a battleground for external disputes as well. It was the Israeli invasion of Lebanon last summer and subsequent partial withdrawal this year that touched off the latest round of Christian-Drund warfare. Now the Syriann that once supported Arafat are backing his opponents in Tripoli, even as the Israelis (who entered Lebanon to clear out the PLO) are bombing anti-Arafat forces near Tyre.
Clearly the tangle of alien armies in Lebanon cannot hasten a solution in the Middle East, only more violence. The Lebanese must build on the dialogue (albeit stormy one) established at Geneva to quickly work toward both a settlement between warring Christians and Druse, and a removal of Israeli, Palestinian and Syrian forces from the country.
To date American policy has sent the U.S. running in circles in the Middle East. A chief U.S. policy objective has been to check Syrian efforts to fuel conflict between Christians and Druse, just as they are fanning the flames of the internal PLO dispute. However, relying on the strictly voluntary cooperation of Syrian President Assad, who is eager to claim Lebanon as "rightful" Syrian territory, would not appear to be the most effective course of action.
Neither, in the long run, is the presence of U.S. Marines in Lebanon. Although the international forces stationed in Beirut can serve as a valuable stabilizing force while the Lebanese hammer out a settlement, their stay should not be open-ended. As the recent car bomb attack at the Marine compound illustrates, the Marines may only serve as a catalyst for still more violence. The United States should withdraw the Marines as soon as they are confident such a withdrawal would not prompt fresh violence.