Behind the Headlines Sitting on a Powder Keg

Israel is bracing for the probable end to the relatively relaxed political and military atmosphere in the Middle East after the American Presidential elections Nov. 2. and is particularly concerned that a new situation will emerge in Lebanon with Syria in virtual control of that country.

According to many observers here, whoever is elected President of the United States next month may take a somewhat different and possibly tougher position on Israel and the Middle East than the two candidates have in their pre-election campaigning. A “dangerous and explosive” situation is also brewing in the UN Security Council which, at Egypt’s initiative, will take up the situation in the administered territories.

Many Israelis believe this could stir up a new wave of outbursts on the West Bank which seems to have calmed down after the Hebron incidents on Yom Kippur. Finally, the mandate of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) on the Golan Heights comes up for renewal at the end of November. This may occasion an end of the tacit “understanding” between Israel and Syria over events in Lebanon.

LEBANESE SITUATION IS PIVOTAL

The situation in Lebanon is expected to affect future developments in the Middle East. At the beginning of next month, an inter-Arab army, reportedly to number 30,000 men, is expected in Lebanon to police the cease-fire arrangements just reached at the Arab mini-summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Israel is skeptical that the cease-fire will hold. Nevertheless, it regards the Riyadh meeting as a clear victory for Syria which will be rubber-stamped at the full scale Arab summit this week. With Damascus’ intervention in Lebanon thus legitimized, the Syrians have no reason to give in to the PLO and there appears to be an understanding between Syria and Egypt that a “tamed” PLO is better for all parties concerned.

But the presence of 30,000 Arab army regulars on Israel’s northern border–most likely a Syrian army with only token forces from other Arab countries–will force Israel to reassess the military situation there.

A sudden improvement in Syrian-Egyptian relations would come as no surprise here. President Anwar Sadat doubtlessly believes that after the American elections the time will be ripe to resume political movement in the Middle East. But the two major powers could not be expected to bring pressure to bear on Israel as long as the Lebanese crisis continues. Thus, Sadat is prepared to cooperate with Syria to end the Lebanese conflict.

Meanwhile, Israel has reacted in a low key to the Egyptian initiative in the General Assembly earlier this month when Egyptian Foreign Minister Ismail Fahmy, in a speech delivered for him by Egyptian Ambassador Abdel Meguid, stressed that a Mideast peace settlement required Israel’s withdrawal from all occupied Arab territories and the restoration of the “legitimate rights” of the Palestinian people, including their right to an independent state.

Political sources here noted over the weekend that the move would not contribute to peace efforts and that it contradicts the terms of the Israeli-Egyptian interim agreement which required Egypt to tone down its political warfare against Israel.

Sadat is believed to be attempting to prove Egypt’s determination to make the Arab world the fifth global power. Sources here point out that this is not the first time Cairo initiated anti-Israel action in an international forum despite commitments to the contrary.

ONLY CERTAINTY IS UNPREDICTABILITY

But knowledgeable sources note that the only certainty in the Middle East is its unpredictability. Despite the agreement at Riyadh, no one knows what the Iraqi or Libyan reaction will be toward Syrian hegemony in Lebanon or whether they will permit an inter-Arab move to cut the PLO down to size. There have been many cease-fires called in Lebanon during the past 18 months of blood-letting and none has lasted long. It appears, in fact, that a solution is no longer solely the function of an Egyptian-Syrian understanding or of an all-Arab effort.

The Phalangist radio announced last weekend the establishment of a new Lebanese Christian army for the defense of southern Lebanon. It stated its determination to keep fighting until the last Palestinian in southern Lebanon is wiped out. “For this cause we shall cooperate even with the devil,” the announcement said. There is little doubt here who they mean by the “devil,”

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