The reason for the fury of the latest Israeli attacks on Lebanon is that the Israeli government perceives events as possibly moving to impede its aim of neutralizing once and for all the Palestinian position in Lebanon.
Ironically, although Israelis are not saying so publicly, one of the factors making them feel their position vis-a-vis Lebanon could be undermined is the turn taken by US President Reagan's peace envoy in the Middle East, Philip C. Habib. What concerns the more zealous Israeli hawks is Mr. Habib's involving himself, albeit indirectly, to get the most important of Israel's client groups in Lebanon -- the Gemayel family's Phalangists -- to unhook itself from its association with Israel.
Flushed by his recent election victory, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin apparently feels that now is the moment to strike hard in support of what he sees as Israel's security interests -- even if this means killing Lebanese civilians in the heart of Beirut, as Israeli warplanes did last week. Mr. Begin seems to feel that he can pursue this course regardless of its effect on the Habib mission and overall Israeli relations with the United States.
He has seen that so far the pro-Israeli lobby in the US is a trump card that he can call out or play effectively. Presumably he also is persuaded by the argument from within and without government in Washington that the new Reagan administration still has no clear long-term Middle East policy.
As for the Palestinian threat to Israel from across its borders with Arab lands, Israel has long since neutralized it from the direction of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. In Egypt's case, Israel has done this with a peace treaty; in Jordan's and Syria's, by making it clear to the governments of those two countries that the price of Palestinian action against Israel from their territories was massive Israeli retaliation.
But Lebanon has always been a different story. For one thing, Lebanese governments have chronically been too weak to prevent Palestinian guerrillas and refugees from using bases in Lebanon to attack Israel. For another, there are more Palestinian refugees in Lebanon as refugees in camps than in any other state bordering Israel.
Prime Minister Begin has sought to deal with this situation not only by the usual policy of fierce retribution for Palestinian attacks from Lebanon but, more importantly, by using the Lebanese Christian community as a lever, even a Trojan horse, to establish a de facto Israeli protectorate over as much of Lebanon as possible.
This spring, Mr. Begin's pushing of the Israeli position into Lebanon threatened confrontation with Syria, which has its own ideas about a protectorate over as much of Lebanon as it can bring under the shadow of its power. This is where Mr. Habib came in.
Mr. Habib's immediate aim was to try to get Syria to withdraw Soviet-built surface-to- air missiles moved into Lebanon this spring to counter -- as Syrians saw it -- Israeli moves in support of anti-Syrian, pro-Israeli Lebanese Christians in central Lebanon. The route to this seemed to be a measure of reconciliation between warring factions within Lebanon, aimed at securing their consent to the Lebanese government's own relatively weak forces assuming wider responsibilities than hitherto.
The eventual quid pro quo would be a measure of Syrian withdrawal in return for the Lebanese Phalangist Christians north of Beirut and in central Lebanon cutting ties with Israel. This, incidentally, is a deal still to be consummated. It is a bargain that leaves, as Israelis see it, many uncertainties for themselves. It could also be a precedent for international pressure on Israel to end its patron- client relationship with another group of Lebanese Christians. These are the mercenaries of Maj. Saad Haddad, introduced by the Israelis and maintained by them on the Lebanese side of the Israel-lebanon border. It is difficult to see Mr. Begin ever a agreeing to this short of massive US pressure.
Violence continued on the ground July 19- 20. The Israelis carried out their first overland operation into southern Lebanon since the latest round of fighting began. Their aim: Palestinian positions on the road between Nabatiyeh and the Zahrani River. They also attacked Palestinian positions at Beaufort Castle farther inland. The Palestinians, for their part, fired rockets from Lebanon at Israeli settlements in northern Galilee.
Mr. Habib meanwhile was waiting in Jerusalem with Mr. Begin. And in Washington the Reagan administration was again pondering whether, as a sign of disapproval to Israel, to delay once more delivery of a consignment of F-16 advanced jet fighters.
All of this is frustrating for Arab governments like those of Saudi Arabia and Egypt.Both these governments have key roles in the Reagan administration strategy to meet the Soviet threat to the Gulf and its oil. Both feel that Mr. Reagan makes things difficult for them by not going beyond slapping Israel on the wrist no matter what the Begin government does. They are dismayed that there has not been a further US response so far to the latest Israeli attacks inside Lebanon -- attacks that come only a few weeks after the Israeli air raid on Iraq's nuclear reactor outside Baghdad. Both Saudi and Egyptian governments continue disappointed at what they see as the timid US response to Mr. Begin's apparent gradual absorption of the entire West Bank of the Jordan.
But Mr. Begin is not perturbed by strain between the US on the one hand and Saudi Arabia and Egypt on the other. To some extent, it satisfies him. He does not like to see any Arab state successfully challenging Israel in its once-unquestioned role as monopolizing US interest and sympathy in the Middle East. He resents Israel's apparently being denied an active role in overall US strategy to defend the Gulf and its oil and he finds distasteful the increasingly favored po sition enjoyed by Saudi Arabia in US planning.