Good Morning, Lebanon

No one really knows what Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's political objective is, and how he expects to bring peace and security. As prime minister, he rarely speaks to the people or outlines any lofty political vision.

If not for the botched training exercise at the Tze'elim air force base, Saddam Hussein might have been bumped off in a daring Israeli raid. "We're living in a region where blood revenge is a way of life," a senior officer explained at the time, speaking in strict confidence. "We warned Iraq that if they fired Scud missiles at Israel, we would attack, but we didn't because of American pressure. Playing by the rules of blood revenge, not settling scores with them is a sign of weakness." So said the officer.

In this sphere, one could say we've done a great job of regional integration. They carry out an act of terror. We strike back. They take revenge. We take revenge on their revenge. They take revenge on our revenge on their revenge. A terror attack brings a crackdown on terrorists, a crackdown on terrorists brings more terror. A large-scale attack prompts large-scale retaliation. And so on and on forth. The question is whether the government has a program with respect to what it wants to achieve and where all this violence is heading.

Arafat, as we know, is no angel. He is a liar, a political wimp and a man who never sticks to an agreement. Prof. Bernard Lewis is right in saying it was a mistake to bring him to this country. Those who say that the Oslo accords were amateurish and a terrible mistake are right, too. But to Arafat's credit, let it be said that his political objective is clear: He wants a state corresponding with the pre-1967 borders, with Jerusalem as its capital, and withdrawal from all the settlements.

No one, on the other hand, really knows what Sharon's political objective is, and how he expects to bring peace and security. As prime minister, he rarely speaks to the people or outlines any lofty political vision.

The reason is obvious and represented faithfully by ministers Landau and Lieberman. Sharon doesn't want to reach the point of face-to-face negotiations on the surrender of territories, much less the evacuation of settlements: That could mean the end of his government and his replacement by Netanyahu. One suspects he's in no hurry to adopt the Mitchell plan either, because that would also force him to declare a freeze on settlement activity.

From day to day, Sharon acts less like a prime minister and more like the military commander of old, eyeing the world through a gun sight. Twenty years after the Lebanon muddle, his operational tactics are the same: (a) a humiliating stranglehold on Arafat; (b) a tight knot around PLO headquarters; (c) a scorched earth policy and the dismantling of infrastructure. Back then, Arafat could neither sail nor fly, and in the end, he was deported to Tunis.

Since the age of 53, Sharon has learned nothing and forgotten nothing. The same concept of political and military siege is now being applied to Arafat and the Palestinian Authority with the object of destroying the other side - the assassination or expulsion of Arafat, and the collapse of his authority.

Sharon likes to describe himself as someone who builds his strategy in reverse, paving the road as he goes along. The trouble is that it doesn't always work. The new order and peace by edict died before they were born. Sharon drove Arafat out of Lebanon, but he trapped us there for 18 years, in a bloody and bewildering guerrilla war that claimed 1,200 lives. In the end, he got Arafat in Israel. To paraphrase a popular saying in these parts, whoever didn't want Arafat in Beirut got him within missile-range of Sycamore Ranch.

The unity government has never discussed Sharon's "strategy in reverse" or contemplated our overreaction and imposition of collective punishment in the territories, although Arafat clearly lowered the level of violence in anticipation of Zinni's visit. What is clear is that if a void is ever created in the territories, and there is no central Palestinian authority, we will be sucked into chaos.

Sooner or later, we will find ourselves reoccupying the territories in order to straighten up the mess, and this time, we will not be met by rice or by stones, but by a Lebanon-style guerrilla war. Blood will flow, and Arafat, from his new place of exile, will be the world's underdog all over again.

With mantras like "seven days of quiet" (while Zinni himself negotiates under fire) and embarrassing counterstrikes, Sharon is quickly approaching the point of no return, like 20 years ago. In the unity government, there are enough forces to stay his hand and prevent him from dragging us back into Lebanon.