ISRAEL'S air strike at the Palestine Liberation Organization headquarters in Borj Cedria, Tunisia, is deplorable. This was the context into which Secretary of State George P. Shultz put the Israeli raid in a speech before the foreign ministers of six Persian Gulf countries at the UN in New York: ``We certainly deplore acts of violence in the region, including this act of violence. I fear that what we see always is, in a sense, a contest between the people who want to move toward peace and the people who are afraid of it.''
Mr. Shultz was of course casting a wider net in his deploring than just for the Israeli raid. The terrorist slayings of Israeli citizens, believed to be planned by the PLO, most recently of Israelis aboard a yacht in Larnaca, Cyprus, at least partly prompted the Israeli strike. And the taking hostage of four Soviet diplomats in Beirut, one of them slain by his Islamic fundamentalist abductors, was also to be deplored. ``We need to be clear in our opposition to the acts of violence from whatever quarter they come, and without respect to what is the presumed rationale for them,'' Shultz said.
A widening pattern of violence, touching more territory (1,500 miles across the northern rim of Africa) and new targets (Soviet personnel), must be deplored.
Shultz has not always disapproved of retaliatory actions; after the tragic loss of American Marine personnel in the October 1983 Beirut suicide car bombing, he had favored a punitive response, while the Defense Department demurred.
Nor, regrettably, were the President and the White House in initial agreement with him on the Israeli Tunisia strike. The President said nations have the right of retaliation ``as long as they pick out the people responsible.'' And a White House spokesman termed the Israeli action ``a legitimate response'' to terrorism.
To deplore the violence of retaliation and the violence of provocation is not to equate them, to judge between them, or to enter the labyrinth of rationalization that fuels partisan dispute. Terrorism, and state retaliation, would make partisans of everyone and destroy the middle ground of peacemaking and mediation.
It is not to defend Yasser Arafat or his PLO contingent to deplore the Israeli strike, although this would be the assumption of many who, understandably, argue the case for national survival.
If there is to be a meaningful evolution of Middle East peace, the process will have to be able to survive many disappointments. That Jordan's King Hussein and Egypt's President Mubarak condemned the Tunisian raid but reaffirmed the current Arab-Israeli peace initiative led by Hussein and Arafat, with Reagan administration cooperation, is reason for reassurance that this initiative may endure.
In one sense, Israel could hardly have come up with a sterner test of Hussein's and Mubarak's resolve. And if Prime Minister Shimon Peres of Israel, a proponent of a renewed effort to settle the Palestine territorial dispute, had wanted to show his right-wing critics he was not soft on terrorism or reluctant to use force in authorizing the Tunisia strike, then one could see some offset to the damage done.
Further tests of the prospects of peace will show up soon in Washington. The Reagan administration wants to finance modernization of Jordanian air defenses to counter pressures from Syria, which opposes the proposed Jordanian-Israeli talks. It's anybody's guess what damage the Tunisia strike may do here. The Senate may yet pass a resolution objecting to the arms offer to Jordan, then decline to overrule President Reagan's action. But hostilities in the Middle East often heat up the take-sides atmospher e in Washington, which works to Israel's temporary tactical advantage when Israel wants to block an action. Whether testing, or scuttling, the latest peace initiative was Israel's purpose in the Tunisia strike, Israel's long-term advantage resides in a West Bank territories pact.