Israeli strong-arm tactic may provoke PLO attack from south Lebanon

Israel's tough handling of Palestinian protest on the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip seems to be paying off -- short-term, at least.

But this may force Palestinians outside Israeli control, specifically the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in southern Lebanon, into desperate compensating action against Israel.

The Israeli response to any such action would almost certainly be a military move into southern Lebanon on a scale that could threaten Middle East peace as a whole. An Israeli incursion into Lebanon could easily end in confrontation -- not only with the PLO, but with some 30,000 troops Syria has stationed there in the so-called Arab peacekeeping force.

Israel's brilliant and tough defense minister, retired Gen. Ariel Sharon -- sometimes described by his critics as a general in search of a war -- has at times seemed itching for a pretext to move against the PLO in southern Lebanon. He was quoted by the Jerusalem Post last month as saying that if Israel did attack, the situation would not be allowed to return to the status quo ante.

Concerned about such a chain reaction, the United States had its special envoy, Philip Habib, in the Middle East last month trying to ensure that the cease-fire he helped arrange in southern Lebanon nine months ago still held. Mr. Habib got an undertaking from the Israelis that they would not break the cease-fire unless there were intolerable provocation from the PLO. But that was before the protest demonstrations of the past two weeks on the West Bank and in Gaza, the apparent containment of which could now trigger PLO action from across the Israeli border.

The Israeli mood, as always under pressure, is one of defiance and bravado. For a people seeing the game as one of survival, anything else could seem to invite an increase of the pressure and demands.

British foreign secretary Lord Carrington, visiting Israel last week, saw this for himself when the Israeli authorities flatly turned down his request that one of his aides be allowed to meet with the dismissed mayors of the West Bank Palestinian towns of Nablus and Ramallah. The Israeli firing of these mayors (and the mayor of El Bireh) was the cue for the West Bank turmoil -- which has been largely an uneven clash between armed Israelis and stone-throwing Palestinians.

Israeli officials have professed confidence from the outset that they could deal successfully with the wave of Palestinian protest on the West Bank unleashed by the dismissal of the mayors. The latter were removed on the grounds that they were pro-PLO. The move is apparently a first step to force a showdown with the PLO for influence among the 1.2 million Palestinians in the territories seized in the six-day war of 1967. This is intended to strengthen Israel's hand in facing the international pressures for Palestinian autonomy that are likely to increase once Israel's withdrawal from Sinai is completed April 25.

Israel's timing has been astute.

It knows Egypt's hands are tied because the Egyptian government will do nothing likely to give the Israelis a pretext for not completing the withdrawal from Sinai.

It knows that 1982 is a congressional-election year in the US, which can only add to the inhibitions against effective pressure by the Reagan administration.

It knows, too, that European protest is in effect a bark without a bite.

And it was confident that last week's UN Security Council debate on the West Bank situation was no more likely to produce effective international action against Israel than was the earlier debate on its virtual annexation of the Syrian Golan Heights.

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