Renewed fighting across the Israeli-Lebanese border this week may presage a full-scale Israeli invasion.
Israel has been preparing public opinion for an invasion for some weeks. It is likely, however, that the level of hostilities will increase -- and Israel will build a case against the Palestinian shelling of its northern cities -- before the much-predicted invasion takes place.
If Israel moves in, this could well cause a freeze or breakoff in Egyptian-Israeli talks on the issue of Palestinian autonomy -- and thus bring about the coup de grace to the Camp David negotiating process.
Though the Israel-Lebanon border was quiet at time of writing, the Israeli air raids May 9 and the subsequent Palestinian rocketing and shelling of Israeli cities in northern Israel marked a dramatic deterioration of the 10-month-old truce along the troubled border.
On April 21 Israel abruptly raided Lebanon in what it said was retaliation for a series of terrorist acts since July 1981, culminated by the killing of an Israeli soldier in a land mine explosion in southern Lebanon. Palestinian culpability for this act was never proved, and some United Nations sources doubt the mine was planted by Palestinian guerrillas.
Under heavy pressure to retaliate, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) nevertheless refrained. But another land mine explosion last week and a bomb on a Jerusalem bus this week justified another round of air raids, Israeli officials said.
The Israeli military claims 130 terrorist operations have been conducted against Israelis at home and abroad since last July. The pattern the Israeli military appears to be following at present seems to be a lopsided retaliation for any kind of terrorist attack against Israelis anywhere.
Heavy new Israeli air raids and perhaps commando assaults could be expected in the days ahead, followed perhaps by another Palestinian retaliation, and eventually leading to a full-scale invasion.
Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, who advocates an Israeli invasion of Lebanon to knock out the PLO once and for all, toured the cities in the Galilee region May 10. He was told by at least some community leaders that although there were no injuries in the overnight shelling, the government should treat property damages as seriously as civilian casualties.
The Israeli Cabinet met in a four-hour special session for a briefing on the situation by military chiefs.
In Beirut, Palestinian leaders said they were prepared for any sort of Israeli assault, all the way up to a ground invasion on the order of the 1978 Israeli ''Litani operation.''
One of the first diplomatic casualties of a new Israeli-PLO war would probably be the Camp David talks on Palestinian autonomy. Egypt and Israel currently are deadlocked over the venue for the next round, with US envoy Richard Fairbanks shuttling between Tel Aviv and Cairo trying to work out a compromise.
Israel wants the talks held in Jerusalem, Cairo, or Washington. Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak late last week said his country would not attend talks held in Jerusalem, the eastern half of which Egypt considers occupied territory. Washington and Cairo were also out because eventually the turn for Jerusalem, which Israel considers its capital, would come up. American diplomats in the Middle East point out that there has been ''an understanding'' since the outset of the talks in 1979 that no capital city would be the venue.
Mr. Mubarak is unlikely to compromise on this issue. He is getting strong advice from some quarters to freeze the autonomy talks altogether. Former Foreign Minister Ismail Fahmy told the Monitor in Cairo late last week: ''What the new leadership in Egypt must do is to tell Israel, 'No, you stop here.' Egypt can then act by freezing autonomy talks. It is really Israel that is dynamiting them by its actions.''