US's double bind: To please Israelis and moderate Arabs

A basic difference of approach between the Reagan administration and the Israeli government holds seeds of continued tension between the two "friends and allies."

Prime Minister Menachem Begin made it clear to two visiting special United States diplomatic envoys over the past week that Israel will take military action against Arab countries in its "legitimate self-interest" even if this clashes with overall US Mideast policy.

(Mr. Begin was officially asked by the Israeli President Yitzhak Navon on July 15 to form a new government coalition. He has set a July 27 target date and political observers say his chances are good despite squabbles within his party and among likely coalition partners over distribution of Cabinet seats and proposed religious legislation.)

US State Department Counsellor Robert C. McFarlane arrived on July 12 to discuss suspended US deliveries of four F-16 fighter planes to Israel marking American displeasure over Israel's June 7 raid on an Iraqi nuclear reactor. Mr. McFarlane's findings were intended to feed into an US administrative review (paralleling Congressional hearings) of possible Israeli violations of legal proscriptions against use of American-made arms for offensive purposes.

The review is scheduled for conclusion on July 17 when six additional F-16s are scheduled for delivery to Israel.

The McFarlane mission reflected a basic US policy dilemma. The Reagan administration sees Israel as an important asset in its overall strategic framework of opposing Soviet penetration in the Middle East. BUt it also wants to foster good relations with moderate Arab states within the same regional strategic framework.

Israel, however, is not willing to tailor its military actions to the overall American strategy.

Western sources said McFarlane had not been pressing for consultations by Israel with the US prior to Israeli military strikes. This, they said, would imply US complicity. When queried as to whether Israel would give the US prior assurances, Mr. Begin said, "the reply is completely negative." However, Mr. Begin insisted during the visits "we always take into consideration American interests."

According to informed sources here, the main purpose of the McFarlane mission was to work out some formula with the Israelis which would help the US administration overcome any opposition in Congress to releasing the F-16s to Israel. Mr. McFarlane and Mr. Begin issued a joint statement on July 13 declaring that "any misunderstandings" over the raid on Iraq had "been clarified."

The American double-bind -- how to please both Israel and the moderate Arab states -- was also very evident during the June 12-13 visit of special US envoy Philip C. Habib, several weeks into his shuttle diplomacy attempt to get Syrian anti-aircraft missiles removed from Lebanon. During the week just prior and subsequent to Mr. Habib's visit to Jerusalem, Israel raided Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) targets in Lebanon four times, downing a Syrian MIG jet in a dogfight.

The raid inevitably complicated Mr. Habib's negotiations with Arab governments, already given only a slim chance of total success. Syria's state-run radio accused the US, just prior to Mr. Habib's expected arrival in Damascus, of complicity in the raids, which were followed by heavy PLO shelling of northern Israeli cities, killing three civilians.

Lebanon will reportedly demand from Habib that the US pressure Israel to stop the raids but more likely are continued exchanges between the PLO and Israel across the Lebanese border mounting in severity. Retorted the Israeli daily Ma'Ariv, echoing government thinking here, "The fact that the attack came precisely while we are waiting for a decision [about US release of the F-16s] shows that Israel continues to consider air force attacks in Lebanon legitimate acts of self-defense . . . as long as hostile forces [the PLO] exist and train on Lebanese soil."

A State Department spokesman said the raids in Lebanon were not part of the US "review" on the proper Israeli use of US-made weapons. The State Department condemns the vi olence on both sides.

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