At last -- haggling over peace

This has been the week when the Israelis and the PLO, having fought each other in effect to a stalemate on the fringes of west Beirut, finally allowed American mediator Philip Habib to work toward a compromise between them.

It has also been the week when the President of the United States saw his hard-line campaign against the Soviets repudiated at home in Congress -- just as it had been repudiated earlier in West Europe.

In the Middle East, both the Israelis and the Palestine Liberation Organization were reluctant to compromise. Both dragged their feet. Both haggled over each grudging step. But the time had come when the PLO had little to gain by fighting on and the Israelis had too much to lose.

For the PLO, more fighting meant only that. No outside force had come to their aid. Arab governments had urged Washington to save the PLO, but had done nothing concrete. There was not even talk of another oil embargo on the West. The Soviets entered a bland protest in Washington over alleged US aid to Israel, but took no hard step.

For the Israelis, the price was getting too high. Nightly TV film clips from west Beirut of the havoc being wrought by Israeli bombs and shells, of suffering and dying women and children, of hospitals smashed, of plain people trying to get along without even water -- all this had eroded traditional American sympathy for Israel.

A Newsweek/Gallup poll showed 60 percent of Americans disapproving of the Israeli invasion. Also 59 percent favored measures to restrain Israel ranging from diplomatic pressure all the way to a permanent end to US military aid to Israel.

In the Senate of the US not only Jesse Helms, but even Barry Goldwater talked of breaking US relations with Israel. The indiscriminate bombing had to be stopped. The President himself was echoing rising public and congressional sentiment when he said it.

That left Israel the choice between storming the city with infantry and tanks , or diplomacy. The Israelis had tried to break through the PLO lines on Aug. 4. The PLO lines held. Israeli casualties were heavy. To storm the city outright would have meant more and heavier Israeli casualties, and more disapproval in the outside world.

This was no victory for American diplomacy or President Reagan. He had called for an end to the bloodletting the week before. The Israelis mounted their heaviest bombing and their most determined effort to break through the PLO lines after the President had made known his displeasure.

Indeed, it was a poor week for any effort by the American President to influence the course of history. He had been repudiated over the pipeline affair the week before by his country's most loyal ally, Britain. During this past week he was also repudiated on the same matter by a whopping majority of 22 to 15 in the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.

Seven Republicans joined 15 Democrats in voting to repeal the President's embargo on sale of equipment for the pipeline which is being built to carry Siberian natural gas to Western Europe. The bill was sponsored by a Republican, Paul Findley of Illinois, whose district includes the Caterpillar Tractor Company which is under contract to build pipe-laying machinery for the huge project.

The President had himself undermined his own position on the pipeline embargo the week before. In Iowa, speaking to grain farmers, he had justified lifting his predecessor's embargo on sale of US grain to the Soviets on the grounds that the lifting permitted the honoring of contracts.

If it is desirable to ''honor our contracts'' to sell US grain to the Soviets , is it any less desirable to allow American manufacturers of pipe-laying equipment to honor their contracts?

The President is still in theory trying to pursue a ''hard line'' against the Soviets. In theory he is waging economic warfare against them in the hope of causing them to modify their behavior toward Poland and their other subordinates in Eastern Europe. But the President's own pride in lifting the grain embargo and promising large increases in Soviet purchases of US grain (which may or may not materialize) to Iowa farmers has in effect torn up the pipeline embargo.

The Soviet failure to get itself into the battle for Lebanon is one of the interesting facts of the moment. Normally, Moscow tries to extract some advantage from anything of this kind. It has been an occasional if indirect supplier of some of the arms used by the PLO. Yet it has done nothing effective to help the PLO in its ordeal by fire other than make a few noises at the United Nations and pro forma protests to Washington.

As a matter of fact, Moscow has done nothing of any kind in world affairs of late other than to try to hang on to its position in Afghanistan and give limited economic aid to the military regime in Poland. The most plausible explanation seems to be that Leonid Brezhnev is still in control, but no one knows for how long; hence uncertainty about the succession tends to paralyze Soviet foreign policy.

It is simply a fact that there has been no forward move by the Soviets anywhere in the world since the suppression of Solidarity in Poland -- which in itself was defensive in character.

If anything Soviet policy seems to be passive or even recessive. Latest reports from Afghanistan seem to indicate that the spring Soviet offensive into the Panjshir Valley of Afghanistan has largely been a failure. The Afghan resistance fighters are said to have regained control of most of the valley.

There is no evidence that the Reagan ''hard line'' policy has deterred the Soviets or influenced their policy. But there is ample evidence that they are being contained by other people for their own local reasons.

The Chinese have been putting some distance between themselves and Washington , but have remained just as cool as ever toward Moscow. India has been going through a phase of disappointment about Moscow's ability to help in the modernization of the Indian economy. Now we see the Arabs looking elsewhere than to Moscow for help. There is no sign of any new Soviet initiatives in Africa, or of African dissidents looking to Moscow for help.

It is almost as though the Soviets had become irrelevant in world affairs -- except in Washington where President Reagan is still trying to rally his allies to his economic offensive.

But with Iowa and Illinois lining up with Britain, France, and Italy -- it is obvious that that campaign is going nowhere.

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