Mideast - a subtle difference

US Secretary of State George Shultz was back in the Middle East this week. He did not expect to achieve a break toward a new peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors. There is no prospect of that in sight now.

But he can tell the President when he gets back to Washington that there is an interesting change in the climate among the various countries and peoples there.

The most visible manifestation of the change is that Israel is asking for US help in getting arrangements which will permit a partial withdrawal of Israeli forces from Lebanon.

This is something new and different in the story of Israel. Until now Israel has been straining at the American leash, always trying to drive deeper into the Arab peninsula, always being tugged back at last by entreaties and exhortations from Washington. This is the first time that Israel has in effect said, Help me get back out - at least partway.

Israel does not want to get out of Lebanon entirely. But it is finding it uncomfortable, and expensive, to keep substantial forces in most of southern Lebanon on constant alert and taking fire and casualties daily.

What we are seeing here is the first workings in the Mideast of the Vietnam-Afghan syndrome.

The Vietnam-Afghan syndrome is what happens to a country when the price of a foreign adventure gets high enough to pinch on the home front.

The United States eventually pulled out of Vietnam not because its armies were defeated in battle (they were not) but because the cost in lives and treasure and home-front tolerance was too high. The American home front demanded the withdrawal. President Gerald Ford responded to the general demand. The US was not driven out of Vietnam. It went out.

The same process is at work for the Soviets in Afghanistan. True, there is no open opposition to the venture or its cost on the home front. The open pressure comes from India and China. In effect, China has made a Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan a precondition for the reopening of normal relations between Peking and Moscow.

Western diplomatic sources report that, while Soviet public opinion is dutifully silent, members of the central committee of the party are beginning to wonder whether the cost is outrunning possible long-term gains and to ask questions.

In the diplomatic background, talks are under way aimed at a possible arrangement under which Moscow could get out of Afghanistan without losing face too obviously. American diplomats are in on the talks. The fact of diplomatic exchanges on this subject shows that Moscow has reasons for wishing that it could find a dignified way out of its Afghan venture.

Israel is now in a preliminary Afghan phase. It has had a victorious invasion. Its battle flags are planted well beyond its original frontiers. Never has it been so powerful, so feared - and so dependent on the US. Its money costs alone are so heavy that Israel can meet its current costs only if the US Congress will increase the annual US subsidy to Israel for the coming year by enough to help cover the extra cost of the invasion of Lebanon.

On the Israeli home front people are beginning to worry about the amount of dependence on the US and to wonder whether the US will continue to shoulder the cost of Israel's ventures. Many are protesting about the continued casualties in Lebanon. Young soldiers are objecting not only to military service in Lebanon, but to having to act as riot control police on the West Bank and in Gaza.

And just as some Americans turned against the Vietnam war because of the sufferings of the Vietnamese people (My Lai was an incident which alienated many), so some Israelis are speaking out against harsh repressive measures used against Arabs in the occupied territories.

American exhortations have never yet had any restraining influence on Prime Minister Menachem Begin. He has pressed ahead with his annexation and expansion policies regardless of anything Washington has said. He turned down the President's peace proposals with a callousness bordering on contempt.

But now things are different. There is pressure from the home front on Mr. Begin to think again about annexationist policies which make peace with Arabs impossible. Not even Saudi Arabia, the most conservative and pro-American of the Arab countries, could agree to the final annexation of the West Bank and Gaza.

There is no comfort for the Arabs from Washington. But there might be from inside Israel itself.

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