No limits on Israel?

It can only sadden the world that Israel has chosen to escalate the cycle of violence and counterviolence in the Middle East by bombing a densely populated area of Beirut. The Israeli action is deplorable. It is also deeply tragic. Not only because it resulted in such a high loss of life but because it shows up again in profoundlly mistaken judgment of Israel that the road to its security lies through the gun.More and more, Israel conveys the attitude that it has the right and might to do precisely what it wants regardless of the consequences. Few think that such an attitude will ever bring peace.

The question in the wake of the raid is how the United States, Israel's supporter, will respond. With another light slap on the wrist, or with a strong action that reflects a tough- minded view of the US national interest?

It can be argued that Prime Minister Menachem Begin feels increasingly emboldened because he has met so little resistance in Washington to his actions. The relatively mild United Nations rebuke of Israel following its attack on the Iraqi nuclear reactor did little to dispel a perception in Israel that it can act with impunity. If President Reagan now lifts the embargo on delivery of the USF-16 fighter bombers to Israel, he will only encourage Israel in its course. What does it do to America's credibility and image to have Israel constantly ignoring its wishes? At the least, shipments of the F-16s ought to be held up indefinitely -- until Israel shows somes forbearance and gives evidence it is serious about a negotiated peace.

Washington needs to straighten out with the Israelis the issue of what constitutes legitimate self-defense. Mr. Begin has stripped away any remaining shred of reasonableness from the Israeli policy of raiding Palestinian positions in Lebanon. How can the killing of 300 civilians, most of them Lebanese not even involved in the Palestinian fight, be called self-defense? Israel has even gone so far as to redefine such strikes: they are no longer "retaliatory" but "defensive preemptive." It should not be overlooked that the recent Palestinian rocket attacks on Israeli towns (resulting in only a few casualties) began afterm Israel launched these so-called preemptive strikes into Lebanon. That such raids are in violation of the laws under which US military arms are supplied if abundantly clear.

The Beirut attack is all the more disheartening in light of a more cooperative Arab stance of late. Iraq, whose nuclear installation was destroyed by Israel, nonetheless accepted a moderate wording of the UN resolution rebuking Israel. Saudi Arabia, Mr. Begin's scornful comments notwithstanding, has been playing a quietly constructive role in Lebanon, where a cease-fire between Syrian and Lebanese Phalangist forces was recently arranged. All the signs suggest that some Arab states, unable to achieve their goals through angry confrontation with Israel, were beginning to opt for a softer approach. Will that now go down the drain?

Israel doubtless does not like the new Arab strategy and in fact seems to be out to destroy it -- and to drive a wedge between the US and moderate Arabs. If so, it is to be hoped Saudi Arabia and others do not let themselves be drawn into the israeli ploy by overreacting to the Lebanese raids. Restraint now could prove helpful. American public support of Israeli policy already has eroded, and the bombing of Beirut may induce Americans to speak out with forcefulness and concern.

Israel has demonstrated again its disregard of international opinion. Unless President Reagan and the US Congress begin to come to grips with this aggressive posture, they should not be surprised i f they are treated to more of the same.

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