Mr. Reagan and Lebanon

The Israeli invasion of Lebanon should prompt nations to earnest self-examination. Are they working as hard for peace as they seem to be for war? Peace demands not only moral and spiritual vigilance but conscious, unrelenting effort. If Britain and Argentina had stuck to resolving their dispute by peaceful means, they would not now be mired in armed conflict. If the Arab-Israeli dispute had been given the diplomatic attention it demands, we might not be witnessing a devastating Israeli attack on Lebanon. Letting political problems simmer until they explode betrays a lack of intelligence and vision.

The question is whether the United States -- so central to the Middle East peace process -- will courageously pick up the diplomatic nettle and deal with it. President Reagan has not engaged himself personally. It is crucial that he do so. The dangers to the US national interest are too great to let the diplomatic vacuum persist. Patching up cease-fires is not a solution. What is needed is a firm, well-conceived US policy on the Palestinian issue, and the political will to follow through.

It is not as if Israel's ''Peace for Galilee'' operation were unforeseen. For months the Israelis have been preparing for such an assault. They have cited the attack on the Israeli envoy in London as the spark reigniting the fighting, but many diplomats feel they have simply been awaiting an occasion to inflict a heavy blow on the PLO in southern Lebanon. The fact is, the PLO guerrillas had been by and large observing the cease-fire. The rocketing of villages in northern Galilee began only after Israeli planes bombed bases near and in Beirut -- killing 45 people in a large scale retaliation.

What now? Will Israel stay in southern Lebanon once it has destroyed key PLO strongholds? It should disquiet Washington that some Israelis would like to maintain a military presence there not only to forestall renewed PLO shelling of Galilee but to be able to tap the water from the Litani River. There are even those among Prime Minister Begin's supporters who regard southern Lebanon as a part of the historical land of Israel.

Untangling the situation may prove difficult; the Israelis know that once they withdraw the PLO will simply reconstitute itself. This is the challenge for US envoy Philip Habib. To persuade the Israelis to pull back may require some UN arrangement to remove heavy PLO weapons from the area. It may also require making clear to Mr. Begin that the US is under congressional fiat to suspend arms shipments to Israel if US arms are not being used for legitimate self-defense. Having already struck at PLO positions in Beirut, Israel can hardly claim that invasion of Lebanon was necessary. Many will note the irony of Israel invoking the UN Charter to claim the right of self-defense while ignoring UN resolutions calling for withdrawal of Israeli forces from occupied Arab lands.

Here is the nub of the issue. Israel perhaps feels it has effectively scuttled the West Bank autonomy negotiations by invading Lebanon. But it is not in Israel's long-range interests to avoid the demands of peace. Israelis must ask themselves whether the aggressive policies of their most radical leaders will ever ensure for their children a life free of war. The Arabs are no less culpable. They in effect have fed Israeli militancy by their diplomatic inaction. If they developed a position which offered Israel true peace -- provided the Palestinians' aspirations were met -- they would strengthen their own and Washington's hand.

The US must get diplomacy moving again. Instead of reacting to events in the Middle East and putting out the fires of war, it ought to be staking out a strategy for peace. For this, Mr. Reagan must lead the way.

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