Jerusalem — All Mideast eyes are focused on special US envoy Philip C. Habib who is in Jerusalem at Presidential Ronald Reagan's behest to try to halt a sudden, escalating mini-war of deadly shelling and bombing by Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) across Israel's northern border with Lebanon.
Palestinian rocket attacks have already killed four Israeli civilians and wounded scores in northern Israeli border towns. The Israelis have knocked out PLO headquarters and major strategic bridges in south Lebanon, and bombed PLO headquarters in downtown Beirut, killing up to 300 people who were reportedly mostly civilians.
The conflict could escalate drastically should Syria decide it had to help its PLO ally or should Israel, as it has threatened, launch a major ground attack into south Lebanon.
Mr. Habib's new mission -- he had already spent three months trying to negotiate a removal of Syrian antiaircraft missiles emplaced in Lebanon in April -- faces major obstacles. Israeli officials are openly skeptical of a US-negotiated ceasefire with the PLO which could involved them in indirect dealings with their PLO arch enemy. They fear such a ceasefire would permit the PLO a breather to rebuild its destroyed bases.
Israel would prefer to have Mr. Habib pressure the Syrians -- who dominate Lebanon with a 30,000-strong troop presence -- to lean on the PLO. But the Syrians -- embarrassed by Israel's unchecked domination of Lebanese skies -- are unlikely to accede.
Moreover, tensions are high between Israel and its American ally. The US has been embarrassed by Israel's use of US- made weapons in the attacks, and the timing of the biggest raid on the very day when the US was preparing to resume shipment to Israel of F-16 fighter planes suspended after Israel's raid on an Iraqi nuclear reactor.
Israel's Deputy Defense Minister Mordechai Zippori warned that if "political contacts. . . did not bring about the desired results," Israel would "defend her citizens even if good friends were in the area." As if to prove this point, the Israeli Air Force struck at PLO regional command centers in south Lebanon even while Mr. Habib was meeting with Mr. Begin on July 19.
The Israeli raids are only the latest chapter in a long simmering conflict across Lebanon's southern border with Israel. Ever since 1969, when the PLO wrested reluctant permission from a weak Lebanese government to base troops and equipment in south Lebanon, the PLO organization has tried to strike at Israel from that location. The Lebanese government has never regained control over the PLO, and Lebanon today is the only Arab country from which the PLO has relatively free access to attempt strikes at Israel.
Since 1978, when Israel launched a major ground attack against southern Lebanese PLO bases and then withdrew, the border has been buffered by a United Nations force and by a Lebanese Christian militia allied to Israel. In recent years Israel strongly defended its right to launch preemptive strikes at PLO bases above the buffer zone.
The reason for the current strikes, according to the Israelis, was the recent acquisition by the PLO of huge amounts of military equipment from Syria, Libya, and the Soviet bloc -- including heavy artillery, tanks, and multiple Katyusha rocket launchers -- which the Israelis say greatly increased the PLO's military threat. The first of the five recent Israeli strikes, on July 10, was against Katyusha launchers.
Prime Minister Begin is especially sensitive to the safety of northern towns whose residents are predominantly poorer Jews originating from Arab countries who strongly supported him in the recent elections. He promised them during the campaign that shelling from Lebanon would soon cease. The reason for the timing of the raid -- just when Mr. Habib had returned to the area and when President Reagan was about to announce his decision on the F-16s -- is less clear. Some observers suggest it was a direct message to the Reagan administration that Israel would not swap its right to what it sees as military self-defense in exchange for US weapons or removal of Syrian missiles from Lebanon.
But Israel's imperviousness to predictable American annoyance stems at least in part from the conviction that the US recognizes Israel as its most reliable anti-Soviet strategic asset in the Middle East. Israeli Cabinet Secretary Arye Naor, insisting after the raid on Beirut that Israel would still get the F-16s, noted "the Americans don't sell us planes because of our beautiful blue eyes. They sell them because of the common strateg ic interests between us and them."