Israel totes up its losses in fighting PLO in Lebanon

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

The cease-fire on the Lebanese border is providing the Israelis with time to assess their recent round of fighting the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).

The prevailing conclusion: Israel lost politically, and fought, at most, to a draw militarily.

This conclusion is hotly contested by the Israeli government. But under heavy fire from opposition parties and press, Prime Minister Menachem Begin does admit a public-relations loss.

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Distilled, these are the major Israeli setbacks as many in the opposition see them:

* The PLO has gained de facto recognition as a party to a cease-fire with Israel, no matter how circuitous the connection.

* A serious rift has opened between the United States and Israel. Elements of this were strained relations with the Reagan administration, with pro-Israeli congressmen, and with important neutrals on Capitol hill. American public opinion was also greatly affected by television footage of the July 17 bombing of a Beirut neighborhood.

* The US further "punished" Israel, one critic observed, by again holding back delivery of F-16 fighters.

* No clear military objective was achieved by Israel. The northern Israeli cities of Nahariya and Qiryat Shemona were virtually abandoned during intensive Palestinian shelling. The bombing of PLO headquarters in Beirut does not appear to have seriously impaired the guerrilla organization. And the cease-fire gives the Palestinians an opportunity to regroup.

Mr. Begin argues that these were not setbacks. His press adviser, Uri Porat, told the Monitor July 28, "Israel didn't deal with the PLO in any way.Israel didn't allow the US to deal with the PLO. We've experienced very bad public relations. But the prime minister says he is not going to defend Israeli by the rules of PR."

Mr. Porat placed blamed to the damage done to Israel's image on the Israel press. "You cannot expect anyone to explain our case abroad if you can't explain it at home. The Israeli media took a very hostile position. Most of the journalists are members of the Labor Party -- or even more leftist."

A sampling of media criticism:

"Now the PLO is crowing, and with justice. At the price of damaged, but eminently repairable, installations, and without dropping an iota from its notorious 'covenant,' it has gained de facto recognition, even in Washington, as a crucial factor in the Middle East equation," the Jerusalem Post commented July 28.

"As much as no one wants shooting in the north, a cease-fire that in some form or another places Israel on the level of Yassar Arafat's fighters is not to the government's glory," Ha'aretz said July 27.

"Rebuild Israel's political standing and prepare its Army so that it will operate according to proper moral standards, methods, timing, and place," Davar recommended July 26.

An official government spokesman was philosophical about the recent campaign.

"No doubt that [the July 17 raid on Beirut] was a problem. But there are certain situations where the main thing is to protect your citizens. Only then do you get to the PR aspects. We didn't feel there was any choice."

Israel acted, he says, first to break up military concentrations and supply routes in southern Lebanon. But that failed due to the mobility of guerrilla forces.Israel was barred from a ground assault by the presence of United Nations forces in the area.

"It was decided we would have to hit command posts in Beirut. We knew they were sandwiched in apartment buildings with civilians. The decision was not taken lightly. But PLO headquarters could not be permanently immune."

More than any other of Mr. Begin's controversial acts in the past year, the July 17 bombing seemed to have dug deeply into many Israelis.

Even Begin supporters whom I have talked with in the past few days seemed to be shaken, although, like the government spokesman, they can explain it as a measure of last resort.

One man, a Likud supporter, leaned against the wall of a government office building and quietly said: "Look, a lot of Israelis are upset. You can't say that we are hardened to this kind of thing.Maybe we shouldn't have gone into civilian areas."

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