After the PLO exit
In a bizarre way, the emotion-charged evacuation of the PLO from Beirut seems to hold benefits for all parties involved.
For the PLO, as their fighters march into ship-born exile with cheers and victory signs, garlands around their necks and kalashnikovs held high, the exodus is being celebrated as a moral and political victory. They were not liquidated and they have garnered world attention for their problem.
For the Israelis, whose defense minister Ariel Sharon watched the initial PLO departure from a near-by highrise building, it marked the military destruction of the PLO and an opening to a settlement of the Palestinian question on Israeli terms.
For US special envoy Philip C. Habib, who watched the PLO departure from several floors above Mr. Sharon, the success of his diplomatic mission could mark a new era of US influence in the area.
And for the Lebanese, whose shattered national Army - in its disarray the symbol of a fractured Lebanon - pulled together the units which are policing the evacuation, it spells the beginning of hope.
Yet all of these expectations are as yet far from being fulfilled. By shaking up most of the frozen Mideast realities of the past 10 years without as yet providing a new framework by which to reassemble them, the expulsion of the PLO from Lebanon may raise more questions than it has provided answers.
This is immediately clear in Lebanon itself. Any hope that a strong central Lebanese government could be achieved merely by getting rid of the PLO has already been dispelled. The immense yearning for restored unity expressed by almost every individual Lebanese has not yet been enough to eliminate historical communal squabbling between various Christian and Muslim factions which already jeopardizes initial parliamentary voting for a new Lebnese president now scheduled for Aug. 23. And while one foreign force - the PLO - is in the process of being removed from Lebanon, it is still unclear how long Israeli and Syrian groops will remain there despite the US goal of removing all foreign forces from Lebanon.
Equally unclear is the PLO's fate, despite its current claims of victory. At the moment Yasser Arafat's status is high among Palestinians. His movement, while it was besieged in Beirut, displayed unprecedented unity and loyalty to his leadership, and most Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza are united in the pride of desperation at the PLO's survival. Moreover, Arab leaders, who failed to provide material defense for the PLO, must now provide at least lip service support as well as shelter.
But it will take extraordinary skills - even for a talented political juggler like Mr. Arafat - to hold together a PLO scattered around several Arab countries all anxious to exert tight control. Already moderate and radical PLO factions have been involved in a behind-the-scenes tug of war over where future PLO headquarters will be relocated.
Mr. Arafat's Al-Fatah - the main group - is anxious to distribute its leaders in several Arab countries which wil host PLO contingents, while other PLO leaders, including Mr. Arafat's Number two man, Salah Khallaf (Abu Iyad), have insisted that the PLO headquarters be in Syria.
The PLO will also face critical policy decisions on how best to make use of current world attention: whether to pursue the diplomatic option flat out and whether to meet the price of US recognition of their organization - more explicit recognition of Israel. At the same time, Mr. Arafat will probably have to face the challenge of splinter groups who prefer to opt for increased terrorist activity.
Nor is Israel's victory to be as clear as Mr. Sharon would describe it. Prime Minister Begin has expressed hopes for a peace treaty this year with a united Lebanon. Both hopes are premature and Israel could find itself mired in Lebanese domestic politics in order to prevent renewed civil war there. Defense Minister Sharon has also indicated he expects to find Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza who will negotiate with Israel now that the PLO structure hs been fractured. This too is premature as most West Bankers and Gazans will be waiting to see how the PLO reorganizes and so far accord little legitimacy to local Palestinian figures whom Israel is cultivating as potential negotiating partners.
Certainly the US has gained influence in the Mideast through Mr. Habib's negotiating skills. Moreover, the Soviet Union has been discredited in the Arab world by its lack of support for its Syrian and PLO allies. But the same Arab states which now look to the US for further diplomatic magic also suspect the Americans of collusion with Israel over the invasion of Lebanon. The United States' future role in the area is most likely to be defined by how it takes advantage of its current gains and both Arabs and Israelis are waiting in judgement.
The Israelis have not hesitated to criticize US policy and ignore US wishes. Defense Minister Sharon is said by informed Israeli sources to believe that the United States is no longer a superpower and to have acted accordingly. Israel is suspicious of any projected new American peace initiative and has already served notice that it will ignore any proposals.
The moderate Arab states are also waiting anxiously for the US to prove itself. Egypt, a key US ally, has served notice it will not resume autonomy talks with Israel on the fate of West Bank and Gaza Palestinians until Israeli troops withdraw from lebanon.
Jordan, on whom the US still seems to be placing over-optimistic hopes that it will join the autonomy talks, is more interested in procuring new American arms and seeking US reassurances in the fact of Mr Sharon's insistence that Jordan is the only Palestinian state.
Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia are all fearful that Israel's invasion of Lebanon could lead to increased Islamic fundamentalism as a result of Arab governments' displayed impotence.
For the US to sustain Arab hopes while allaying Israeli suspicions, not to mention scorn, will be a formidable task. Occasional outbursts of anger like President Reagan's celebrated phone call to Premier Begin over the bombing of Beirut will not be sufficient. It will require a commitment to well-thought-out proposals which show more acquaintance with the shifting realities of Israeli, Palestinian, and Lebanese politics than has heretofore been displayed by the US administration.