The heart-rending devastation and killing in west Beirut should arouse the world community to a cry of outrage. Arab claims that the havoc wrought by the Israeli siege is taking on the proportions of a wartime Warsaw Ghetto are plainly exaggerated. But casualties in the hundreds are no more acceptable than casualties in the thousands when both sides are supposed to be observing a cease-fire. Israel must bear the burden of opprobrium for continuing the use of force far in excess of PLO provocation.
In the face of conflicting claims, it is well that the UN Security Council has acted to send observers to the scene. Israel is not keen about such a move, but the presence of UN monitors may have an inhibiting effect. It could also lay the ground for the stationing in Beirut of an international peacekeeping force. Israel would like American troops to take on a buffer role, but such a step would put the US in a most dangerous position - perhaps involving it in the fighting and forcing it to take sides in the hostilities. If US troops are thought to be needed, at the least they should be part of a multinational force.
Why is Israel exerting such fierce pressure on Beirut while diplomacy is underway to evacuate the PLO? Obviously Menachem Begin wants to smash the PLO not only militarily but politically. Paradoxically, the PLO has managed to finesse a political gain from the war. The struggle has shifted from the battleground to the diplomatic arena, where attention is now fixed on such issues as recognition of the PLO, PLO recognition of Israel, and Palestinian self-determination. These are anathema to Israel, which mistrusts the PLO no matter what its stance.
In the end, there will have to be compromise on both sides. The question is whether the US, now trying to get the PLO out of Beirut, is able to persuade each of the parties to give something. The Arabs feel President
Reagan has done little to restrain the Israelis, and indeed the US has looked impotent in the face of aggression by its close friend and client. It does little for the President's image when it is perceived he cannot persuade Mr. Begin to desist from policies that are clearly inimical to peace in the region. However, there are signs of a growing impatience at the White House which, if it leads to quiet but firm pressure on Israel to stop the bloodshed, could help advance a negotiated evacuation.
As for the PLO, it cannot be ruled out that Yasser Arafat is stalling in order to extract political concessions. It is hard for the PLO fighters to agree to leave Lebanon without some promise that the question of Palestianian self-determination will not fade into oblivion once the fighters are dispersed. The US apparently deems it inopportune to resolve the issue of PLO recognition in the heat of crisis. Even proclaiming the Palestianians' right to a homeland may be too sensitive, with the Israelis strangling Beirut and time of the essence. But certainly an affirmation of US support for UN Resolution 242 is in order - an affirmation never strongly made by the present administration - and would assure the Palestinians of Washington's commitment to a comprehensive peace.
If the interests of long-term peace are to be served, however, there will have to be a yielding on the PLO side. It cannot expect the diplomatic help of the United States - or the sympathy of outsiders - unless it abandons terrorism as a weapon of struggle, unequivocally recognizes the right of Israel to exist as a nation, and formally accepts the UN resolutions, including 242 and 338, which provide the framework for a negotiated peace.
The life of a once-vibrant city now is at stake. Washington must spare no effort to save it - and to break the chain of endless conflict through an invigorated determination to bring about peace.