Narrowing the lanes of conflict

ISRAEL'S interception and forcing down of a Libyan civilian aircraft this week keep alive the round of provocation and retaliation that began last September. It reinforces the unfortunate precedent set in October when the United States forced down an Egyptian airliner to seize the hijackers of the Achille Lauro, who were later turned over to Rome authorities. And it would, if allowed, continue the distraction from the Middle East peace process, which for other reasons has trouble enough. To define the Israeli intercept over the Mediterranean as a ``failure'' because it found no terrorists among the plane's passengers is to miss the point that it would have been wrong to attempt it even had terrorists been aboard. Quite apart from issues of international law, are civilian passengers now to be subjected to the risks of counterterrorist commandeering by air force jets of vigilante nations as well as to commandeering by terrorists -- and whatever increment of retaliation is sparked by this latest action?

The futility of attempting to bring Libya to heel for Colonel Qaddafi's murderous mischief, his precise role in international terror not fully known, was demonstrated in the US Sixth Fleet's maneuvers outside Libyan waters a week ago. What was gained by such an expensive bluff? Not even intelligence accurate enough to know whether terrorists were aboard a civilian aircraft.

Meanwhile, the Arab world's inclination to make the United States and Israel the universal focus of its frustration and anger is fed.

The best next hope for converting the vast resentment of Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories into movement toward peace could come later this year when Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev meet, adding impetus toward an international conference. Recent efforts by King Hussein of Jordan to arrange positions with Yasser Arafat of the Palestine Liberation Organization, Syria's Hafez Assad, Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, and Israel's Shimon Peres have proved frustrating. Israel's succession to a less receptive leadership looms ahead; its relations with Egypt grow embittered. The oil price drop puts the squeeze on countries like Jordan, which sees itself as a Mideast service center, as Beirut was. Jordan's Palestinian contingent could get more restive, meaning trouble for Hussein. And so forth.

All the more reason to narrow, not widen, the lanes and means of conflict in the region.

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