Which road for Israel?

It is now possible to see clearly the choice which Israel can still make between the road which Menachem Begin travels and the other road which Ronald Reagan proposes.

There is little time left for making the choice. The grim events of mid-September at the Palestinian camps in west Beirut have exposed the things which happen along the Begin road. More than that, they have nearly closed off a last chance for taking the other road.

The other road is the road of peace, of accommodation between Israel and its Arab neighbors, of sharing the ancient land of Palestine between the Jewish state of Israel and a free and independent Arab community. It is the road of Camp David, and of UN Resolution 242.

The Begin road is the road of war. It puts Israel's future on raw military power. It would build a larger Israeli state on conquest, on intimidation of neighbors, and on defiance of the opinions and the preferences of the outside world, including the government of the United States.

Menachem Begin set forth on the road of war when his armies invaded Lebanon. He concealed the extent of his intentions at first by saying that the armies were only going 25 miles into Lebanon. The President in Washington was so assured. Israel's armies did not pause at the 25-mile line.

They went to the edge of Beirut. They proceeded to pound that community with every weapon at their disposal, in open defiance of President Reagan. Then the President persuaded the PLO to pull its troops out of west Beirut and scatter them among the Arab lands.

The President did so on the explicit undertaking that the Palestinian refugees left behind in west Beirut would be protected. The word of the President and the honor of the US were in that pledge. It required that west Beirut be occupied by the Lebanese army. It required that the Israeli forces keep to their positions below west Beirut.

But Mr. Begin sent his troops into west Beirut. The Israeli troops kept the Lebanese troops away from the refugee camps. Then the Israeli army let into the camps local Christian Phalangists in Israeli pay. According to Begin's own spokesman, Uri Porat, the Israeli cabinet was informed of the decision to admit the Phalangists into the refugee camps, and gave its approval.

The result puts President Reagan in the position of having betrayed the refugees left behind in the camps. It puts the moderate Arab governments (Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia) in an almost impossible position. How can they sit down and talk to representatives of the Begin regime in Israel after the massacre of the Palestinians?

You and I, looking at all this from the outside, cannot know that Mr. Begin deliberately invaded Lebanon, bombed west Beirut, surrounded the Palestinian refugee camps, and let the Phalangists into those camps all for the purpose of blocking the peace road which President Reagan is trying to keep open.

But it is obvious that had Mr. Begin wanted to block the peace road there was no better way of doing it.

The moderate Arabs can join in a journey down the peace road only if the government of Israel will first choose to build its future on a sharing of the land of Palestine. It cannot be built on the seizure of all which lies west of the Jordan River by force, and on trying to keep it by force.

It is unrealistic to think that the Begin regime in Israel could make a fresh start, turn back now from the road of war and join President Reagan on the road of peace. Begin credibility as a seeker after a negotiated peace is gone.

Israel under new leadership could still choose the road to peace. The serious question is whether the people of Israel and their devoted friends and supporters in other places will now insist that the man of war step down and open the way for a man of peace to take his place.

The Begin road may seem tempting to many Israelis. It could pile military victory upon military victory - so long as Israel continues to possess and be able to wield decisive military power over its Arab neighbors.

But Israel cannot generate and sustain its present military power out of its own resources. It can sustain that power only so long as it is sustained in turn by the taxpayers of the US - at a level of about $3 billion a year.

The Begin war road means ever more suppression of Arabs and more killing of Palestinians. How long will American taxpayers go on being willing to subsidize an Israeli military power which is used as it has been used since the first of June? And what happens in the long run to an Israel whose position in the Arab community has been built on power and on intimidation by power?

President Reagan is still holding open the peace road. But to return to it Israel will probably first have to turn away from Mr. Begin. Will it and how soon?

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