THE surprising repercussions of the Achille Lauro affair illustrate the extreme difficulty of dealing with international terrorism, the fragility of diplomacy when conducted by emotional public opinion, and the ease of snatching long-term defeat out of the jaws of short-term victory. At first, the hijacking attempt's rapid collapse underscored the successful approach of Italian diplomacy in the Middle East and the suggested modification of United States policy in that region. Italy has long pursued an evenhanded Middle Eastern policy, maintaining regular relations with Israel while believing that the Arabs have legitimate grievances which should be assessed. During his tenure in office, Prime Minister Bettino Craxi pointedly paid attention to Arab leaders. And the Italians support t he creation of a Palestinian state loosely linked to Jordan.
While participating in the Beirut peacekeeping mission, the Italian contingent carefully adopted a neutral stance, avoiding embroilment in local squabbles. The result: Unlike the US and French contingents, which had hundreds killed, only one Italian soldier died.
In the wake of the hijacking, the goodwill that had accrued to the Italians because of their reasonable diplomatic and moral stance paid off immediately. It was the intervention by the Arab world that prevented this incident from evolving into a major tragedy, as did the other hijackings in the area. Syria refused to let the ship dock at its port at Tartus, and Yasser Arafat condemned the action.
The Israelis have long been unhappy with the Italian position, which included a strong condemnation of Israeli air strikes on the Palestinians in Tunisia.
The Israelis have consistently adopted a hard military line toward terrorism. Correct on the surface, this position has skillfully stalled meaningful discussion of terrorism's root cause -- the Palestinian problem -- while focusing on the symptoms. Unilateral American support for Israeli positions has turned American citizens abroad into the preferred targets of terrorists, who understand that Israeli stonewalling could not subsist without American support and who can only take out their hatred on indiv idual Americans. The murder of helpless Americans on the Lauro and on the TWA Flight 847 early in the hijackings illustrates this frustration.
It is crucial to distinguish between Western ideological terrorism and international terrorism based upon lack of recognition or rectification of grievances that have a firm basis. In the first instance, governments may be fighting for their survival against forced changes in their societies; the second instance may call for modifications in the diplomatic situation of an area, and guarantees. If the first requires toughness, the second demands flexibility and discussion.
The Italians have had more experience than most with internal terrorism, resorting to hard measures in their successful fight against the Red Brigades. They refused to negotiate for Aldo Moro's life, and their rescue of Brig. Gen. James L. Dozier has become a model of antiterrorist methods.
While the Achille Lauro release proved that a ductile approach to Middle Eastern problems can produce results, the diplomatic consequences wreaked havoc. Reasonable people cannot argue with the hijackers' capture, but they can object to the US self-destructive policies after the operation.
In Italy, strong American condemnation of the release of Palestinian leader Muhammad Abbas, who the US government says masterminded the hijacking, provided a pretext for Defense Minister Giovanni Spadolini and two fellow Republican Party ministers to pull out of the Cabinet last week, providing a serious political crisis for the United States' most reliable European ally. Unfortunately, the US press misinterpreted Mr. Spadolini's resignation as a reaction to the release of Mr. Abbas, while, in fac t, Spadolini has been gunning for Mr. Craxi, modern Italy's first Socialist prime minister, for two years.
The real winner in this situation is Israel. If Mr. Arafat had punished the hijackers, he would have further substantiated his claim to represent a Palestinian state, a conclusion that Israel fears and that probably explains President Reagan's retraction of his statement accepting PLO punishment of the hijackers. Italy learned that while balanced policies may lessen the terrorist threat, American displeasure with an independent Middle Eastern posture can produce a serious domestic crisis. Finally, Egypt
may conclude that the US respects the sensitivities of its Middle Eastern opponents more than its friends who actively work for a serious resolution of the region's problems.
Spencer DiScala is associate professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.