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Libya as a model: S. Africa has cited it -- will Israel?

By Joseph C. Harsch / May 23, 1986



This was the week when South Africa bombed three of its black neighbors and cited President Reagan's raid on Libya as a model. It was also a week when Israel continued to show signs of wanting to do the same to Syria, also using the raid on Libya as a model. It is understandable. The rationale for the raid on Libya is that terrorists are sometimes trained in Libya and go forth with Libyan support to hijack ships and planes and kill people in airports. So the US bombed targets in and around the two main cities of Libya -- Tripoli and Benghazi.

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South Africa's black nationalists collect weapons and funds from neighboring black countries and use the weapons in South Africa. The white South African government says that if it is proper for the US to bomb a source of radical action in Libya, then it should be free to attack sources of radical action in Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Botswana.

Terrorists are also trained and based in those parts of Lebanon which are occupied by Syrian troops, primarily in the Bekaa Valley. Does this mean that the Syrian government knows about the activities of all the little cells of Palestinian activists? Probably yes for some and no for others. But if Mr. Reagan bombed Libya because it harbors terrorists, should it not do the same to Syria, or at least authorize Israel to do the same?

Washington was quick to deny that Libya was a valid model for what South Africa did. White House spokesman Larry Speakes said:

``We vigorously condemn these attacks by South Africa. The United States stands with the governments and peoples of those countries [attacked] in expressing our sense of outrage at these events and our condolences to the families of the victims.''

Bombing Libya was justifiable ``self-defense'' when done by the US, but bombing black neighbors was an ``outrage'' when done by white South Africa. And there were reports this past week, unconfirmed, that Moscow and Washington had discussed the problem of preventing their respective clients in the Middle East from having a war. During the previous week, the White House took the position that the US does not have ``independent or conclusive proof'' of Syrian complicity in acts of terrorism.

This past week, Israel again asserted it had evidence of Syrian complicity, and Italy was reported to have told the US that the sole survivor of the attack at the Rome airport said that he had been trained by Syrians. As of the time this was being written, the White House was not accepting the idea of Syrian complicity or any other reason for taking direct action against Syria based on the Libyan model.

Syria during the week refrained from doing the one thing which almost certainly would trigger an Israeli attack. It continued to dig tank and artillery emplacements near the Israeli border in southern Lebanon. But it did not install tanks or guns.

Israel's Army chief of staff, Gen. Moshe Levy, toured the Lebanon border with reporters and told them that ``the activities of the Syrian Army in southern Lebanon are continuing.'' Israeli ``military sources'' were quoted by the New York Times as saying that small groups of Syrian officers were brought down from time to time to the new diggings, presumably in order to familiarize them with the terrain.

One report during the week was that Moscow had proposed to Washington a joint mission to the Middle East to restrain both Syria and Israel from starting a new war. Washington is said to have replied that each should do its best to restrain its respective client in the area.

There was nothing on the public record about Moscow restraining Syria. But the fact that Washington declined (as of this writing) to accept the argument of Syrian complicity in terrorism was itself a form of restraint on Israel. Official US acceptance of the theory of Syrian complicity would in logic authorize the Israelis to do to Syria what Mr. Reagan had done to Libya.

All the above events underline identical problems in the US, South Africa, and Israel. In all three, the political right wing is urging militant action against the radicals on the outside. The American strikes on Libya pleased the new conservatives in the Reagan constituency. In South Africa, President Pieter W. Botha is under similar pressure from white nationalists to take more militant action against black dissidents. And nowhere outside the US was the strike at Libya cheered as loudly as among Israel's ultra-Zionists.

The trouble with these actions taken to appease right-wing radicals is that they seldom seem to settle anything. The strikes at Libya have not stamped out terrorism. It has rather enhanced the prestige in the Arab community of those who take violent action. The South African raids this week have hardened black nationalism. The white cause has actually been weakened, not strengthened. But Mr. Botha has undoubtedly pleased his radical right and thereby gained a little more time for his policy of dismantling apartheid gradually.