What the Israelis may be up to in southern Lebanon

The calculated intensity of Israel's latest attacks on Palestinian targets in southern Lebanon raises questions about the real long-term aims of Israeli policy.

These questions go beyond the quadrennial one of whether an Israeli government is once again taking advantage of a United States presidential election campaign to assert itself militarily, confident that it can do so now with relative impunity.

Among the questions being asked by Arab and Western analysts:

* Is there indeed a long-term Israeli plan, never abandoned by the most committed Zionists, to extend the boundaries of Israel? Does such an extension go beyond the presently occupied West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Golan Heights to include, say, southern Lebanon up to the Litani River?

* Does such a plan pick up the threads of Israeli encouragement of the proclamation of a separate state by Lebanon's Maronite Christians, which go back at least a quarter of a century? The late Israeli prime minister, moshe Sharett , has revealed in his diaries that such a move was being discussed as far back as February 1954 on the initiative of the late patriarchal David Ben-Gurion.

* Is there a parallel long-term plan not simply progressively to deprive West Bank Palestinians of any effective leadership (as by the recent expulsion of mayors) but also to maintain pressure on West Bank Palestinians so that they give up hope and abandon the terrain to wider Israeli settlement?

* And beyond that, is there an Israeli plan to take advantage of the present explosive and Byzantine situation in Lebanon and Syria to take some kind of action to deprive the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) entirely of its bases and sanctuary in Lebanon? Are there responsible Israelis who think the moment is propitious for this because the Maronites' youthful anti-Palestinian leader, Beshir Gemayel, flushed with recent triumph against rival Maronites, would acquiesce and because Syrian President Hafez al-Assad is too preoccupied at home to intervene?

More philosophically, has the present Israeli leadership still failed to resolve the challenge of coexistence with Palestinians as a political community after a lifelong perception of them in that role as Israel's mortal enemy?

No objective observer can definitely answer "yes" or "no" to these questions without being privy to Israeli strategy and policymaking at the highest level.

Yet whatever the answer to any one of them, they should be seen alongside ever-close-to-the-surface Israeli fears about increasing isolation and possible eventual annihilation in the sovereign state they proclaimed as their own in 1947 -- and after nearly two mellennia without one.

Given these fears, are this week's Israeli strikes no more than a general warning that Israel will not passively let itself be pushed around? In the same vein, could the message siply be one for the US, as the Sharett diaries show it was at a time of Israeli military activism a quarter of a century ago:

"Don't back us into too isolated and desperate a corner or we will be obliged to strike out more and more ruthlessly?"

Or, with more untoward implications for long-term Middle East peace, is the area seeing the latest steps in a plan to secure for Israel as extensive and secure a laager as possible from which to pursue the battle for survival in an increasingly hostile world?

Developments Israeli has to accept as faits accomplis or try to ward off include these:

* Progressive diminution of Israel's once-privileged role as the sole linchpin of US Middle East policy in favor of growing and parallel US ties with the Arab lands of Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

* A second-term in the White House for President Carter, who can hardly bring his Camp David triumph to fruition in an overall middle East peace settlement without increased US pressure on Israel (after his reelection) to be more forthcoming on self-determination for the Palestinians?

* Alternatively, the end of the Camp David process without any agreed resolution of the Palestinian problem. This would raise in turn the possibility of an eventual return by Egypt to the ranks of the hostile front-line Arab states posing an armed threat to Israel.

* A continuing shift of the European Community powers away from a once generally pro-Israeli stand toward one more sympathetic to the Palestinians -- and even to Israel's nemesis, the PLO.

* Transfer away from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv of more and more of the 13 foreign embassies originally in the former city, where their presence has been till now a token of unusual symphaty toward Israel.

In Washington, a State Department spokesman said the US was "looking into the circumstances of [the Aug. 19] Israeli raid" on Palestinian bases in southern Lebanon "in the context of our policy of support for the integrity of Lebanon."

At united Nations headquarters in New York, consultations were under way Aug. 20 on Lebanon's letter to the Security Council protesting against the Israeli raid -- the heaviest since Israel's massive incursion into southern Lebanon in March 1978.

The Israelis returned to the attack in southern Lebanon Aug. 20 with air and rocket attacks on Palestinian positions. No Israeli ground troops were reported involved, as was the case in the action the day before. Overnight, Palestinian rockets had been fired from Lebanon into the Israeli region of Upper Galilee.

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