Dangerous precedent

Two fundamental questions present themselves in the wake of Israel's defiant attack on Iraq's atomic reactor. One is whether the United States is prepared to exert the toughness needed to bring about a settlement of the Arab-Israeli dispute which lies at the heart of Israel's insecurity and the Arabs' frustration.

The other is whether the world community has the wisdom and conscience to face up to the dangers of nuclear proliferation and to return to efforts to prevent the diversion of nuclear materials for making atomic bombs.

On the answers to these questions could hang world peace and stability.

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That Israel should want to take out an enemy's nuclear installation before it develops a potential for warmaking is understandable. That Prime Minister Menachem Begin has chosen to do so while running for reelection -- and while he perceives he has a sympathetic ear in the White House -- seems clear. But the world can only greet with sadness and regret that Israel has chosen the path of an outright act of aggression. In the end it could redound most heavily on Israel itself.

First and foremost, the preemptive bombing was morally indefensible. Israel makes much of seeking "secure and recognized" boundaries -- that in fact is what the Arab- Israeli conflict in part is all about. Yet by violating Iraq's frontiers Israel itself has showed a contempt for the very principle of the sanctity of boundaries. Displaying a double standard, it seems to be saying: "We want international law to acknowledge and protect our right to exist, but we will determine when we think a neighbor is planning to destroy us and we will take matters into our own hands."

If Israel had a regard for international law it could have continued working through diplomatic means to achieve an agreement on nuclear nonproliferation in the Middle East. The ironic fact is that Iraq already is a party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty while Israel, which probably has its own nuclear bombs, is not. Are we then to have a world in which one nuclear nation, whenever it suspects the intent of another nuclear nation, opts for a preemptive strike? The horror of such a law of the jungle can scarcely be imagined. So a dangerous precedent has been set.

There are many other reasons to condemn the Israeli action in the context of the quest for peace in the Middle East. It heightens tensions in the region and complicates the mission of US envoy Philip Habib in Lebanon. It has humiliated the Arabs, which could be dangerous as they seek to save their pride.

Not least of all, it frustrates the overall peace process and therefore will make it harder for the US to achieve a strategic consensus in the Middle East. President Reagan's efforts to obtain Arab cooperation with the West on an anti-soviet military buildup depends on progress in resolving the Arab-ISraeli problem. That now looks to be even more difficult. Despite Washington's protestations, the Arabs are likely to associate the Iraq attack with the United States.

In this connection it is also a strategic set- back for the US that Israel should have attacked a country which has been edging away from the Soviet orbit and toward friendlier ties with the West. Will Iraq now be tempted to invoke its treaty with the Soviet Union?

In the aftermath of the raid, the US must confront some sensitive tasks. One is to begin to draw a line on what is and what is not acceptable behavior by Israel using American military and financial aid. For years now the Israelis have been employing US-supplied equipment for raids into Lebanon, for instance, contrary to the condition that such aid be used only for defensive purposes. But what is self-defense? The question has long been avoided, and the administration and Congress need to face up to it now if they are to prevent Israeli preemptive operations in the future.

The Israelis, of course, have a genuine security problem. What would the United States in fact do if Israel were threatened by a nuclear neighbor that does not recognize its right to exis? Here the onus falls on the international community -- above all the industrialized nations which are so eagerly peddling their nuclear wares around the world -- to ensure that such threats do not become a reality. Some progress has been made toward the goal of nuclear nonproliferation but nowhere near enough, and the present US administration shows no interest in the subject. How long, however, can the US and other Western powers avoid the implications of an unrestrained global arms buildup?

The Israeli raid, in short, was shocking. It may prove salutary if it awakens Washington and other capitals to these central issues.

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