Israelis Prime Minister Menachem Begin is determined to seriously weaken if not destroy the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in the near future. He could not then be forced to negotiate with it under any likely peace proposal.
This is the view of many Western diplomats in the Middle East watching the mounting violence of the past few days and weeks.
But, if this is Mr. Begin's aim, he risks rupturing Israel's vital relationship with the United States. And this is the crucial issue now, according to Western diplomats, Arab officials, and Middle East commentators contacted by the Monitor.
Mr. Begin may yet calculate -- as does his leading critic, Labor Party leader Shimon Peres -- that the military cost would be high but the political cost even higher. In that case, the peace mission of US special envoy Philip C. Habib may yet succeed in ending the violence. Mr. Habib met with Lebanese leaders shortly after arriving in Beirut July 22, then left for Saudi Arabia.
If, however, Mr. Begin seizes this moment while there is disunity in the Arab world and a still unclear American Middle East policy, a major Israeli offensive into Lebanon may be in the offing.
[At time of writing, according to Reuter reports from Beirut, Israeli jets had launched more devastating bombing attacks July 22 on southern Lebanon, destroying bridges, setting an oil refinery and pipeline alight, and killing a number of civilians. A little earlier, Palestinian rockets hit northern Israeli just as Mr. Begin was visiting the area; early reports said there were no casualties.]
PLO officials were predicting July 22 that Mr. Begin had decided to mount a major onslaught against them, although with an attempt to mollify Washington by agreeing to a continuation of Mr. Habib's peace shuttle.
"One has to take what is happening at face value" a PLO spokesman told the Monitor in a telephone interview. "The Israeli bombings of the past 12 days are very, very serious. These are the people with the greatest war machine outside of NATO, and they are sworn to annihilate us. Israel does what it says."
He added: "We are not shaking in our boots, however."
Although the Israeli Cabinet agreed July 21 to allow time for Mr. Habib's mission, the Israelis have pushed ahead with their limited war with the PLO. Under current US policy, Mr. Habib does not negotiate directly with the PLO, because neither the US nor Israel recognizes it. Instead, he deals with the weak, battered Lebanese government.
Thus his chances of success are slim. But other parties, such as the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) or powers with some sort of contact with the PLO (such as Britain or the Soviet Union) may have some influence.
But even a cease-fire would not remove the basic problems that cause this conflict to flare up periodically -- unless the cease-fire is followed by a serious attempt to settle the 33- year-old question of Palestine.
Since 1948, Palestinians and Israelis have fought over a narrow, resource-poor strip of the Middle East running between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River. Many Western diplomats say the land lacks strategic value. But the land is seen by Israelis as the biblically mandated homeland of the Jewish people. Palestinians say the same plot of ground is their centuries-old de facto homeland.
For the past 3 1/2 decades, these two views have been irreconcilable, prompting wars in 1948, 1967, 1973, and hundreds of clashes in the interims.
The 1978 Camp David agreements between Egypt and Israel settled what essentially was a border problem between those two countries. Left for the future was the delicate, emotional issue of a Palestinian homeland.
For the past year, Camp David-outlined autonomy talks have languished. If the Reagan administration is preparing a peace initiative, it will either build on the autonomy talks or take a new tack -- but either way, the problem th at awaits resolution is the Palestinian problem.