Philip Habib (1920-1992) was an American career diplomat who is considered to be one of the pre-eminent career diplomats in American post-war history. During his 30-year career as a Foreign Service Officer, he had mostly specialized in Asia but he became instrumental in 1968 in halting the escalation of American involvement in Vietnam.
The son of a Lebanese-American grocer, Habib was raised in a Jewish section of Brooklyn by Lebanese Maronite Catholic parents. He earned a Ph.D. in agricultural economics from UC Berkeley (1952), entered the Foreign Service, served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs (1967-1969), and was a member of the Vietnamese peace talk delegation in 1968. He held several positions throughout the 1970s, serving as Ambassador to South Korea (1971-1974, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs (1974-1976), and Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs (1976-1978).
In 1986, Habib came out of retirement to accept an assignment in the Philippines, where he was instrumental in ending Ferdinand Marcos’s attempt to steal the 1986 presidential election and then, as American special envoy to Central America in 1986-87, he helped Costa Rican president Oscar Arias shape and sell the peace plan that led to the end of the region’s civil wars.
In recognition of his many contributions to the United States and to the world, President Reagan awarded Habib the Presidential Medal of Freedom – the highest official honor given to an American citizen by the U.S. government – and he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Senator Charles H. Percy, then chair of the Foreign Relations Committee. Exhibited here is an original photograph of Habib receiving the Medal of Freedom from President Reagan at the White House on September 7, 1982.
However, Habib is perhaps best known for his work in the Middle East, including serving as President Carter’s chief negotiator between Egypt and Israel, in which capacity he is credited with convincing Begin and Sadat to meet with Carter at Camp David (leading to the signing of the Camp David Peace Accords on September 17, 1978) and for his work as President Reagan’s special envoy to the Middle East from 1981 to 1983. As we shall see, it became abundantly clear after his retirement that he carried a pronounced partiality against the Jewish State and, in particular, that he manifested palpable disdain for Defense Minister Ariel Sharon.
On April 28, 1981, Israel intervened for the first time in Syria’s war against Lebanese Christians when it shot down two Syrian helicopters and bombed Syrian positions on Mt. Sannine. Responding to the attack the next day, Syria moved ground-to-air missiles into the Bekka Valley in Lebanon. On May 5, 1981, President Reagan appointed Habib as his special emissary to the Mideast “to defuse tensions . . . and forestall confrontation.”
Habib commenced complex and nuanced shuttle diplomacy as he traveled between Jerusalem, Beirut, Damascus, and the United States, and, on July 24, 1981 (see exhibit), he concluded an Israel-PLO ceasefire, the first agreement between the two entities. Although it was only an oral agreement because the two sides still refused to formally recognize each other, the result was a stabilization of the Israel-Lebanon border, but the alleged peace lasted less than eleven months.
On June 3, 1982, Israel’s ambassador to Great Britain, Shlomo Argov, was shot and seriously wounded in London by Palestinian terrorists, which provided the final straw and led to Israel going to war against Lebanon. The 1982 Lebanon War, which Israel dubbed “Operation Peace for Galilee,” began on June 6, 1982, when the IDF invaded southern Lebanon after repeated attacks by the PLO operating out of southern Lebanon. That very day, President Reagan again dispatched Habib to try to restore the ceasefire.
From the original ceasefire until the start of the Lebanon War, Israel reported 270 PLO terrorist attacks in Israel. (It also reported 20 attacks on Israeli interests abroad, to which Habib responded on May 25, 1982: “Terrorist attacks against Israelis and Jews in Europe are not included in the ceasefire agreement.”) Yet, incredibly, Habib later admitted that he firmly believed that Israel had intentionally fabricated allegations of terrorist incursions from Lebanon into Israel and that Israel’s actual goal was always to wipe out the Palestinians in Lebanon. He claimed that the United States had been carefully monitoring the situation and there was never any evidence of hostile action from Lebanon directly into Israel.
As it became clear after his retirement, through personal interviews and otherwise, Habib bore unmitigated loathing for Sharon which, I submit, shaded his entire mission. He said that Sharon confessed to him that he had long ago developed a plan to destroy the Palestinians and that Sharon not only ignored his admonition that the plan would harm Israel, he actually launched his military attack on Lebanon the very next day.
As an experienced foreign service professional and diplomat, Habib certainly knew that it would have been the ultimate act of incompetence and dereliction of duty for any government – particularly one such as Israel, which had been forced to fight several defensive wars in only 25 years and been subject to unremitting attacks from its neighbors – not to have detailed plans in effect for every conceivable contingency. In fact, Israel had developed a plan for a full-scale invasion of Lebanon in 1981, which had then been put on the shelf by its cabinet. Nonetheless, Habib considered these plans to be an act of ultimate bad faith by Sharon and, as he admits, he determined that the overriding purpose of his mission was to put an end to what he characterized as Sharon’s “invasion” of Lebanon.
Habib commenced travel all through the region, trying to get the Syrians and Saudis to take certain actions and to refrain from others while simultaneously trying to keep the Israelis open to a settlement. He complained that he had negotiated some 12 ceasefires, none of which held, and he later alleged that Israel was responsible for at least some of the breaches.
Habib added that Israel had a “strange notion” that it was permissible to relocate troops to gain a military advantage during the pendency of a ceasefire” and that, when its troops were then fired upon, it would disingenuously argue that Lebanon had violated the ceasefire. He later stated sarcastically that he had advised Prime Minister Begin that “I was going to have to get this new definition of a ceasefire written up in the annals of the War College.”
When the IDF captured Beirut, the PLO, whose practice in this regard continues to this day, placed between 6,000 and 9,000 terrorists among the civilians of the city to maximize civilian deaths from the expected Israeli attack and to promote the world’s expected condemnation of Israel. Though it was in a commanding military position, Israel agreed to yet another ceasefire to prevent civilian casualties and to enable Habib to mediate a peaceful PLO withdrawal, even agreeing to permit PLO forces to leave Beirut with their personal weapons.
Nonetheless, the PLO continued to make new demands while adopting a strategy of controlled violations of the ceasefire, with the purpose of inflicting casualties on Israel and provoking Israeli retaliation sufficient to get the IDF blamed for disrupting the negotiations and for war crimes. Habib swallowed this nonsense hook, line and sinker, as he blamed Israel for the continued hostilities.
Arafat’s intransigence was bolstered, whether purposely or negligently, by Vice President George H.W. Bush who, while attending the funeral of Saudi King Khalid in June 1982, advised the Saudis that the U.S. would pressure Israel not to enter Beirut. Convinced that the U.S. had his back, Arafat had every incentive to remain in Beirut. Exhibited here is a photo originally inscribed by Bush to Habib: “To Phil – The best there is in foreign service to country. George Bush.”
Habib complains that he had all but completed an agreement with the PLO and the Syrians to pull their troops out of Beirut, but Israel obstructed his efforts by continuing its bombing of Lebanese cities. Fed up with the situation, he recommended that President Reagan call Begin directly to discuss the situation and, according to Habib, it was that conversation between the two heads of state that led to a disengagement of forces and to bringing sufficient multinational forces to Lebanon.
Finally, on August 19, 1982, Israel approved the proposal, having come to believe that by signing a peace treaty, it would achieve some measure of long-term peace through the expulsion of the PLO, the removal of Syrian influence over Lebanon, and the installation of a pro-Israeli Christian government led by President Bashir Gemayel. However, as history quickly demonstrated, that was not to be, and Israel’s decision would cost many thousands of Jewish lives.
Although Arafat left Beirut on August 30, 1982, the state of war between the two countries quickly resumed. Israel’s hopes for peace on the Lebanese border quickly turned to dust, as the PLO, which Israel had surrounded with no possibility of escape, regrouped in Tunis and went on to cause Israel – and the entire world – incalculable damage which could have, indeed should have, been avoided had it completed the mission to destroy the terrorist organization.
Israel wanted further negotiations with Lebanon, which Habib opposed, preferring to simply approach the belligerents with a proposed solution. Just as he feared, he ended up again running back and forth between the parties and, by the time an agreement was fashioned, he believed that it was wholly worthless because there was no way it could be implemented. He specifically recalls advising the Lebanese that certain settlement terms could not be part of the signed agreement because they would be summarily rejected by the Syrians.
Moreover, he argued that the Syrians would be delighted because their position would be reinforced and, indeed, the fighting began anew. Habib’s attempt to meet with Syria’s President Assad was rebuffed because, Assad alleged, Habib had previously misled him. Habib blamed Israel, maintaining that he hadn’t misled Assad but, rather, that Assad had chosen to punish him because “The Israelis would agree to the terms and then they would break them.” At this point, Habib resigned in disgust for the final time.
Israel’s position in Beirut became unsustainable as, for the first time in its history, it found itself fighting an unpopular war, as Israeli citizens became disillusioned with the war, forcing a dispirited Begin to resign. The national coalition government that assumed office pulled Israel out of Lebanon in 1985, leaving behind only a token force to assist the South Lebanese Army to patrol a “security zone” near the border. The Lebanese Civil War would continue until 1990, by which time Syria had established complete control over Lebanon, and Israel pulled all its troops out of southern Lebanon on May 24, 2000, ending its military presence there.
Habib – and much of the world – viewed getting the PLO out of Lebanon as a wondrous diplomatic accomplishment but, in fact, saving an all but defeated Arafat and stripping Israel of its ability to destroy the PLO subjected the Jewish state to four more decades – and counting – of Palestinian terrorism. Moreover, he utterly failed to get the Syrians out of Lebanon, the result of which is that hostilities between Israel and its northern neighbors continue unabated to this day.
While it is true that Israel would likely have sustained significant losses had it sent its troops into Beirut, that is often the price of victory and what happens in war, particularly a just war like the Lebanon war. Thus, when all is said and done, and notwithstanding the wide acclaim he received, one could argue that Habib had essentially accomplished little more than negotiating some fleeting ceasefires.
After his retirement, Habib worked as a senior research fellow at Stanford University and was frequently invited to share his expertise and opinions with various world affairs councils, including the Carter Center. In this December 3, 1987, correspondence to Habib on his Carter Center letterhead, former president Jimmy Carter writes:
I am deeply grateful for your participation in our Middle East consultation. The meetings were timely and the interchange vigorous. Government representatives who were here found our discussions illuminating and beneficial. We accomplished the goal of finding common areas of agreement on two of the most emotionally sensitive issues: the Gulf war and the Arab-Israel conflict . . . .
Ironically, the First Intifada would begin a week later on December 9, 1987.