Decoupling Lebanon and the West Bank
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.
Even now the White House implies that Prime Minister Menachem Begin should not come to Washington until an accord on Lebanon has been reached. The reason is that the President wants to discuss the West Bank and Gaza, but that is precisely what Mr. Begin wants to avoid. After all, he knows that his next visit to Washington will not be particularly pleasant, since at a minimum he can expect a determined American effort to get a freeze on Israeli settlement activity in the occupied territories. Since Mr. Begin says he has no intention of complying, even if King Hussein announces his willingness to join peace negotiations, one can assume that he will gladly forego a chilly visit to Washington in February.
Having inadvertently gotten itself into the awkward situation of making Lebanon hostage to its broader strategy to solve the Palestinian problem, the administration must now try to decouple the two issues to the extent possible. This means that the President should no longer talk of a solution in Lebanon as a prerequisite for starting talks on the West Bank and Gaza. Nor should high-level talks with Mr. Begin be deferred until a breakthrough is made in Lebanon. Both tracks must now be pursued in parallel, and the very real chance of progress in Lebanon should not be jeopardized by the seeming intractability of the Palestinian question.
One step that makes sense is for ambassadors Philip Habib and Morris Draper to concentrate their considerable talents and energies on the Lebanon negotiations, and for the President and secretary of state to take the lead in orchestrating the moves that are required over the next month to lay the basis for negotiations between Israel and a Jordanian-Palestinian delegation. Parallel progress on both fronts should be sought.
Secretary Shultz has tried up until now to keep the Middle East from taking all of his time, but there is really no alternative but for him to take the full plunge. Like his worthy predecessors, Secretaries Kissinger and Vance, he should prepare for a round of shuttle diplomacy - sooner rather than later.