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A decision for Israel -- diplomacy or warfare

By Trudy RubinSpecial correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / August 11, 1982


When Prime Minister Menachem Begin makes his final choice between a diplomatic or a military solution in Beirut, he will know he has the majority of his country behind him.

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True, the Israeli public is anxious to avoid additional Israeli casualties. True, a strong and angry Israeli minority opposes full-scale Israeli entry into west Beirut and agonizes over civilian casualties there.

But the majority of Israelis accept their government's arguments for driving the Palestinians out of Beirut no matter what the cost. In a country peculiarly insulated from the realities of Beirut, world criticism does not dent their firm belief that they have every right to do it.

Israeli polls have shown the government's position has been strengthened by the war. During the first week in August, a poll commissioned by the newspaper Haaretz showed 56 percent of the public supporting government handling of the country's problems, compared with 44 percent who felt that way just before the war. Backers of the government Likud Party rose to 44 percent, compared with 33 percent in early June.

The government's strong showing reflects a widespread perception that this war is just. Almost all Israelis supported Israel's initial goal of pushing the Palestine Liberation Organization back 40 kilometers from Israel's border. As for the Beirut campaign, while few might echo Prime Minister Menachem Begin's suggestion that the war was ''divinely ordained,'' a majority of Israelis feel that Israel is doing the world a service by battering the PLO.

For government supporters, civilian casualties become a regrettable necessity of war. Says Knesset (parliament) Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Eliyahu Ben-Elissar, ''. . . so many losses in public opinion have been caused us in the wake of those certainly not pleasant pictures of war in Beirut, particularly on the television screen. But this will pass. And the truth is that when the Middle East will be free of the PLO terror, when Lebanon will again be independent . . . then, in fact, everyone will see just how right we were.''

Jeff Halper, an instructor of anthropology at Haifa University, who opposes the war, offers another explanation for the Israeli attitude toward civilian casualties in Lebanon:

''Most Israelis look at things in practical terms,'' he says. ''They can't afford to philosophize. They are convinced of their rectitude so they don't see why they should talk about it.''

This conviction is reinforced by the totally black image of the PLO here. Prior to the invasion of Lebanon, most Israelis' knowledge of the PLO was limited to its record of international terrorist attacks and attacks against Israeli civilians. Since the invasion, the Israeli media has been filled with articles detailing PLO mistreatment of Lebanese civilians over the past seven years (but lacking mention of violent deeds committed by other Lebanese factions , including Israel's Lebanese Christian allies).

Prime Minister Begin, in a letter to President Ronald Reagan, compared Israeli forces to a valiant army flushing ''Hitler and his henchmen'' out of Berlin. The reference captured not only the prime minister's intense hatred for the PLO but the constant linkage in his and the public mind of PLO intentions with the Nazi Holocaust against the Jews.