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Stop the Lebanon sideshow

The first time I visited Lebanon was in 1965 when I was a junior in college. It was a happy and inspiring trip, not only because relatives welcomed me as a long-lost son but also because of the political and economic climate that prevailed in Lebanon. It appeared to be an oasis in an otherwise turbulent region, a country deservedly known as the "Switzerland of the Middle East."

Four months ago I returned to Lebanon, this time as the leader of a congressional fact-finding delegation.

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Needless to say the changes since my first trip were astounding and distressing. Lebanon is the "Pearl of the Mediterranean" solely from the air, for once on the ground no visitor can possibly ignore the evidence of death and destruction. It is everywhere.

Perhaps the most eloquent testimony to Lebanon's agony came when I revisited my ancestral home in the north, Misdelaya. Half the town is destroyed, and I learned that one-quarter of all my relatives were killed during a single battle during the war. Equally distressing was seeing my surviving relatives and their friends. They seemed to have lost some inner strength that had previously sustained them during adverse times.

It's not necessary to recount here how the current situation came to pass. Suffice it to say there are no parties to the Lebanese conflict that are blameless. This applies not only to the internal actors -- namely the score of political/religious factions that threaten the Lebanese polity -- but also to the external actors that have exacerbated the problem. Most obviously the latter group includes Israel, the Palestinians, and Syria. I would add to this list the United States and the Arab League as well because of their past acquiescence to the conflict.

Most observers believe that, so long as the political situation remains unsettled and a strong central government is unable to assert itself, the political and economic reconstruction Lebanon so desperately needs cannot take place. To be more specific, for "political situation" read "Palestine issue." Until there is a resolution of the decades-old Palestinian quest for self-determination, most observers believe peace will not come to Lebanon.

I concur with this analysis -- but only to an extent. Palestinian self-determination is necessary, indeed indispensable for lasting peace in the region. Yet should Lebanon be written off indefinitely because progress toward a comprehensive peace is slow and halting? Peace in Lebanon should not be regarded, in effect, as a "sideshow" to ostensibly greater issues. We have had recent evidence of what happens to a country -- namely Cambodia -- when its problems are regarded as secondary, when it is treated like a pawn to be manipulated by greater powers. The question is whether there will be a Lebanon when the time arrives to solve its problems.

Unfortunately US policymakers are among those who accept the conventional wisdom. One need only point to the State Department's proposals for fiscal year 1981 economic assistance to Lebanon. Relative to the unabashedly political assistance rendered to other nations in the area the department's proposal for Lebanon is minuscule. The $7 million in economic support funds suggested for Lebanon would amount to little more than $2 per capita; meanwhile Jordan would receive $16 per capita from the same fund; Egypt would receive $20 per capita; and Israel more than $200 per capita.

Assertions about the ability of Lebanon to finance its own repair ignore a central point -- that bilateral aid is most important as a political expression above and beyond its sheer economic rationale. Aid is the only tangible proof of US policy, which professes to support Lebanese sovereignty and unity through quiet and untiring diplomacy. But it has often been so quiet as to be inaudible.

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Lebanon deserves to have its problems treated with the immediacy they demand. First and foremost would be full US support for reassertion of Beirut's sovereignty over the entire country.

Ironically enough, once Lebanon is no longer considered a sideshow it can assume a pivotal role. If, for example, reassertion of Lebanese sovereignty were accomplished at an all-parties conference that included Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, it could break the deadlock between these two contending parties. An agreement over Lebanon just might engender the trust necessary for compromise on the vexing issues that divide Israelis and Palestinians.

The sideshow could become the catalyst.

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