PRESIDENT Reagan's first response when he heard that the Israelis had bombed Tunisia was to call it ``a legitimate response'' to ``terrorist attack,'' but, he added, ``as long as you pick out the people responsible.'' These remarks were made to the news that Israeli warplanes on Oct. 1 had traveled 1,500 miles from Israel itself to bomb Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) headquarters inside the Republic of Tunisia. The bombs killed 12 Tunisians as well as 61 Palestinians.
The action was condemned by a vote of 14 to 0 (the United States delegate abstaining) in the Security Council of the United Nations Oct. 5. The resolution branded the deed (which President Reagan had originally condoned) as an ``act of armed aggression perpetrated by Israel against Tunisian territory in flagrant violation of the Charter of the United Nations, international law, and norms of conduct.''
The President toned down his original position on the day of the UN vote. Instead of calling the bombing a ``legitimate response,'' he called it ``understandable as an expression of self-defense,'' adding that the bombing itself ``cannot be condoned.''
So, after revising his remarks, the President ended up as not condoning, but not condemning, either, a deed the 14 other sitting members of the UN Security Council called an act of ``armed aggression'' against a sovereign state ``in violation of the Charter of the United Nations, international law, and norms of conduct.''
The implications of the formula used by the President of the United States in justifying Israel's action are unnerving.
If it is ``understandable'' and in ``self-defense'' for the Israelis to bomb inside the sovereign frontiers of a friendly nation at peace with everyone, it would be equally ``understandable'' if, say, the Nicaraguans had bombed the White House offices in Washington to get at those who we know planned the illegal mining of international waters in the approaches to the harbors of Nicaragua.
It would be equally ``understandable'' if the Soviets were to bomb Tehran on the presumption that someone in that capital city of Iran planned the kidnapping of four Soviet diplomats in Beirut last week, and the execution of one of the four.
Fidel Castro would have little difficulty in using the Reagan formula as an excuse to bomb Miami, were he so inclined. Miami teems with Cuban refugees who daily plot and plan actions against President Castro and his regime.
It is a formula for the breakdown of international law and order. Under the Reagan formula, all anyone would have to do to justify a surprise bomb attack on a peaceful city is to allege, as the Israelis did in this case, that they think a specific act of terrorism was planned in that peaceful, unsuspecting, and unwarned city.
There was a specific act of terrorism committed against three Israeli citizens. On Yom Kippur, Sept. 25, three Israeli citizens were killed aboard a yacht in the harbor of Larnaca, Cyprus. The Cypriot police caught three persons allegedly responsible for the killing. Two are identified as Palestinian Arabs. The third is a British subject, Ian Davison, who says that he was nonpolitical until he saw films of the massacre of Palestinians at Sabra and Shatila camps. He was so appalled, he said, that he went
to Jordan to help the Palestinians.
Those three who were caught by the Cypriot police are in jail awaiting judicial action. They are the persons primarily responsible. Presumably they will be brought to trial in Cypriot courts on a charge of murder. Israel claims that they were acting under instructions from PLO headquarters in Tunisia. The PLO denies responsibility. There are several Palestinian factions that operate on their own and refuse the jurisdiction of the official PLO organization headed by Yasser Arafat.
Under US law, and under contracts between the US and Israel, Israel is allowed to use American weapons only in self-defense, not in aggressive action outside Israel.
Israel used American aircraft in its raid on Iraq's nuclear reactor near Baghdad in June 1981.
Israel used American aircraft, tanks, artillery, and other weapons in its invasion of Lebanon in 1982.
Mr. Reagan's revised formula of Oct. 5 withdrew the original approval, but it continued to use the phrase ``understandable as an act of self-defense.'' The use of the words ``self-defense'' avoids the legal prohibition against aggressive use of American weapons by Israel.
One can only wonder whether President Reagan comprehends what he has done by his statements. Many diplomats assume that the Palestine Liberation Organization office in Jordan is next on Israel's list of potential targets.