The world can breathe a sigh of relief that President Reagan has managed to achieve a cease-fire in Lebanon. By firmly and publicly expressing the United States displeasure over Israeli actions and by holding up delivery of ten F-16 jet fighters, Mr. Reagan has showed for the first time that he is prepared to use moral suasion and aid as tools of diplomatic pressure. This, combined with the skillful behind-the-scenes diplomacy of Saudi Arabia, the United nations, and his own envoy Philip Habib, appears to have stilled the guns.
Whether the cease-fire will hold or not is problematic, but it does provide an opportunity now for the administration to turn its attention to the central question: how to resolve the long-standing problem of Palestinian self- determination which lies at the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict and of much of the instability in the Middle East.
Profoundly needed at the moment is to remove the ambiguity from American foreign policy. There are some indications, to be sure, that the Reagan administration intends to follow through on the achievements of the Carter presidency by vigorously pursuing a settlement of the Mideast dispute -- one taking account not only of Israel's legitimate security needs but of the long-frustrated aspirations of the Palestinians. But it is not yet clear that the President feels deeply enough about this issue to give it high priority.
In the absence of a strong statement to the contrary, for instance, the public is left with the impression that Mr. Reagan believes the Palestinian issue is simply "a refugee problem." His national security adviser, Richard Allen, earlier this year seemed to give a green light to Israel by labeling the Palestinian Liberation Organization a terrorist group and suggesting that Israeli raids into Lebanon were justified as hot pursuit. Conspicuous American failure to say anything about the continued Jewish colonization of the West Bank -- which has gone on apace -- doubtless also has encouraged Mr. Begin to think Israel has carte blanche to act as it will.
Preoccupation with the economy probably has had much to do with this relative inattention to the middle East in Washington. But, as the Lebanese crisis drives home, events will not wait for reassessment of past diplomacy and formulation of a constructuve new policy. The President could begin by addressing some fundamental questions:
Does the US administration in fact believe that the Palestinian people have a right to their own homeland and that Israel is "occupying" land that belongs to them and from which they have been dispossessed? How strong is the US commitment today to UN Resolution 242 which calls for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Arab territory? Does the US consider the continued planting of settlements in the West Bank is inimical to implementation of that resolution? What will be the consequences if the process of Israeli absorption of Arab land goes on? What should be the limits on the use of US-supplied military equipment for defensive purposes How can Israel's fears be stilled and its long-term security assured if the Palestinians fulfill their goal of an independent state?
So far the Reagan policymakers have concentrated on the Middle East within the context of the overall East-West balance -- on building up a "strategic consensus" in the Middle East to thwart Soviet ambitions in the region. The latter goal may be worthy, but it is now evident that it can be attained only if it is accompanied by a parallel effort to deal with the Arab-Israeli dispute.
It may be stretching things to say -- as Yasser Arafat no doubt thinks -- that the negotiations for the Lebanese cease-fire in effect enhanced the diplomatic stature of the PLO. But they did serve the purpose of dramatizing the Palestinian issue.Peace will not come to the Middle East until the President c ourageously faces up to it.