The price of peace

PUBLISHED : Friday, 12 April, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 12 April, 1996, 12:00am

There can have been no doubt in the mind of Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres that the attack he ordered on Beirut - the first for nearly 14 years - risks escalating Middle East violence.

Hezbollah will not be cowed into halting their attacks on Israel unless the order to stop comes from either Iran or Syria. Iran, like Israel, is in the middle of an election campaign, so it is unlikely to order Hezbollah to back off. And Syria, glad to seize the opportunity to strengthen its negotiating position with Israel, has already denounced the attacks as 'aggression and terrorism' which will undermine the peace process.

But for Mr Peres, those are secondary considerations. Hezbollah rockets and suicide bombings by Palestinian extremists have turned Israeli public opinion against a drive for peace which has brought neither security nor the prospect of an end to random violence. Elsewhere, Palestinians in the autonomous areas are angry over the sealing of their borders with Israel. So only a show of force will help him win back the respect of the Israeli voters and defeat an opposition which totally rejects the peace process. If Mr Peres loses the election, the already remote chances of peace with Syria and a final settlement with the Palestinians will recede further.

In a sense, the attack on Lebanon is a surrogate for the real target of Israeli frustration and anger. Mr Peres cannot start bombing refugee camps or Hamas hideouts in Gaza or the West Bank. But there is also a visceral fear in Israel of terrorist attacks from Lebanon which Mr Peres cannot ignore. He must also have calculated that a short, sharp shock to the Lebanese Government and its Syrian protector may push them into action against Hezbollah.

Nevertheless, he is taking a risk. In the past, dire warnings of Israeli intransigence destroying the peace process have proved premature. In the present atmosphere, escalation could finally prove the pessimists right.