Israeli harassment of the planned departure from Tripoli of Yasser Arafat and his armed supporters has the potential to raise anew a disturbing question about the new US-Israeli agreement - to what extent does it benefit the United States?
Events are not yet at that point. The US has asked Israel not to interfere with the evacuation. It has generally been thought that Israel would not continue its shelling incidents once the pullout actually began. But the shellings have been frequent enough that Mr. Arafat has already requested a delay in the major portion of the evacuation, which began over the weekend with withdrawal of his wounded supporters. Should the Israeli shelling or mining substantially affect the pullout, the agreement between the two nations would be put under renewed scrutiny in the US.
Israel's concern is understandable. It does not want the PLO and Arafat to be treated in withdrawal as heroes. It wants to prevent their regrouping for future terrorist acts. The PLO's brutal record of terrorism against Israelis over the years has been well documented.
But the US has two fundamental reasons for seeking the exit of the Arafat forces, some 4,000-strong. It wants an end to the bloodshed in the area, which includes innocent Lebanese civilians caught in the fratricidal PLO fighting. And withdrawal of the Arafat loyalists is within the framework of the Reagan administration's effort to get all foreign forces out of Lebanon. Washington wants the evacuation to go forward without delay.
In any case, in the long run there is another issue that might also spotlight the US-Israeli relationship, and how much Washington is willing to invest to gain Israeli cooperation. That is the apparent Reagan administration decision, reported around Washington, to change the nature of US military aid to all recipients so that it is made up entirely of grants that need not be repaid. Formerly some military assistance was provided through loans.
The change would benefit all US recipients; a major argument in support of it is that the aid is generally given to nations that cannot afford to repay it. Achieving such a change was one aim of the visit to Washington in late November by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.
If these reports are correct, Congress would have to approve the change; it would be expected to do so. What now remains to be seen is the size of the economic assistance package that the administration will recommend in its new budget, to be released in late January or early February. If the combined military and economic package exceeds last year's total, Washington analysts say , the question might be raised again as to what benefits the US did obtain from the agreement with Israel.