President Reagan has correctly identified two urgent objectives for America's Middle East policy: withdrawal of all foreign forces from Lebanon and resumption of negotiations concerning the future of the West Bank and Gaza. Unfortunately, these goals have become intertwined, raising the very real danger of a diplomatic deadlock.
Part of the problem is unavoidable. Israel, the Palestinians, and the Syrians are all involved in both issues. In addition, Jordan and Egypt are looking for signs of progress in Lebanon to justify the resumption of negotiations on the West Bank and Gaza. But US diplomacy has added to the tangle, and Washington now needs to find a way out of the impasse.
Immediately after President Reagan's Sept. 1, 1982 speech on the Middle East, US policy sought to establish two parallel tracks of negotiations, one on Lebanon and one on the broader Palestinian question. Policy planners seemed to feel that priority should be given to the more ambitious second track.
At the time, it was hoped that Lebanon's new leader, Bashir Gemayel, would find it comparatively easy to reach an agreement with Israel. But his assassination in mid-September, followed by the massacres at the Sabra and Shatila camps, convinced the Reagan administration that the situation in Lebanon was too dangerous to ignore. Without perhaps fully grasping the consequences of the decision, Washington coupled the two negotiations by insisting that an early agreement in Lebanon should take place by the end of the year, to be followed by a resumption of talks on the West Bank and Gaza.
The perverse result of this linkage was to provide an incentive to any party that opposed President Reagan's overall Middle East strategy to try to delay negotiations in Lebanon. More precisely, Israel and Syria, since they both rejected the President's approach to the West Bank and Gaza, had little reason to be cooperative in Lebanon, since a delay there could be one way of derailing the Sept. 1 initiative.