POLITICAL realities within Israel are said to explain why the coalition government headed by Shimon Peres has decided to cover Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon with its starkly caustic operation ``Iron Fist.'' When politicians must do something that faces significant opposition in their society, they may feel compelled to combine concessions with indications that they have not given up the tough line. In this case, Mr. Peres may think that to end Israel's costly occupation in Lebanon in a politically acceptable way, it is necessary to stun the Shiites as the Israelis withdraw. Another line of explanation is Israel's need to protect its flank and not allow its troops to become easy targets for reprisal.
But the reports of Israel's harsh tactics cannot be satisfactory either from the Israeli standpoint or for the United States, in whose capital Israel's emissaries and supporters are now seeking enhanced economic aid and a special free trade pact the likes of which the US has never made with anyone else.
For Israel, the withdrawal operation adds to the negative aspects that have already accumulated from its original invasion. In southern Lebanon Israel has awakened a population that had been fairly dormant; it has embittered a people who are, at least on the fringes, radical in their outlook. It remains to be seen whether the animosity aroused among the Shiite Muslims in southern Lebanon will lapse once the withdrawal concludes. If the Israelis keep some kind of presence on the Lebanese border, if only an in-and-out presence, they may continue to be vulnerable to Shiite reaction.
In Washington, the current carefully expedited treatment of Israel's economic needs should come as no surprise, given a familiar pattern in which Congress so often tries to go an administration's request for Israel one better. Of the free-trade-zone project, which would involve a mutual scaling back of tariffs over the next decade, Congress is not likely even to consider questions such as: Why not similar treatment for other countries such as Egypt, second to Israel in US aid, if such pacts would prove mutually beneficial as claimed?
Gestures like the free-trade pact, however much a reflection of American domestic political attitudes and unrelated to any United States hope to promote Middle East peace, add to the general impression in the Arab world of America's lack of neutrality. The same can be said about Israel's iron-fist policy in Lebanon: Whatever the short-term political context, it inevitably contributes to a wider embitterment among Israel's neighbors and makes it more difficult for moderate Arabs safely to step forward to negotiate peace.