THE Israeli raid on the PLO headquarters in Tunis will probably be quickly forgotten by most Americans. The summit, the contest over arms control policy, taxes, and other local issues will command the attention of a public becoming inured to the continuing horrors of the Middle East.
But many in the region will not forget, and their recollection could come back to trouble us in the future. Several aspects deserve to be remembered.
The killing of the Israelis in Cyprus was a despicable act. Those who perpetrated it are in custody in Cyprus. Every pressure should be exerted to see that they are tried for the crime they committed. The raid will not make it any easier for a government in the area to conduct such a trial.
But for the United States there are other considerations.
The raid was against the territory of one of this country's oldest and closest friends in North Africa. Habib Bourguiba considers that he owes his life to an American diplomat who interceded for him in a difficult moment with the French. He has, within the always difficult context of Arab politics, sought to be moderate and friendly. Only a short time earlier the United States government had expressed its firm support for the territorial integrity of Tunisia against Libyan threats. Both facts seem to ha ve been momentarily forgotten by an American President anxious to show his firmness against terrorism.
The bombing took place while King Hussein of Jordan was in Washington, seeking this country's assistance in resolving the delicate question of peace in the area. No matter what may have been said by officials to the US to mitigate the effects of the raid on this process, it cannot have helped the King's difficult task. Yasser Arafat, clearly one of the targets of the raid, is considered an essential collaborator in the King's efforts.
Whatever may be said officially, it is virtually impossible for the United States to avoid identification with the raid in the minds of many in the area.
There are those, undoubtedly, in Israel who estimate that a display of Israeli power of this nature will discourage further terrorist acts. It is hard to find evidence that this is so. Such displays may only implant more deeply the resentment that breeds terrorist acts.
Whatever the pretext, the raid further establishes a pattern of disproportionate response that contributes to a cycle of violence. It is hard for most people not to see a parallel to the pretext of the shooting of the Israeli diplomat in London used to justify the ill-fated Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. It is equally hard to avoid the conclusion that the Israelis, having seen the bulk of the PLO escape in Lebanon, have looked for an excuse to attack their headquarters in Tunis.
Americans are intrigued by the idea of retaliation. Many in this country wish that the US had done the same following the attacks on Americans in Beirut. Yet, as the Tunis raid shows, it is difficult to prove that those directly responsible are the ones harmed in a retaliation of this sort. Many questions would have been raised in the US had our forces conducted a similar raid on friendly territory resulting in the deaths not only of numerous PLO people but of innocent Tunisians as well. Some may feel b etter, but the problem remains unsolved.
There are young people in Tunis who do not remember or accept the strong ties of that country with the United States. As Tunisia enters a period of uncertainty under an aging leader, forces in that country will propose a different orientation in the future. They will remember, even if we forget, the close US association with a violent act that we appear to condone.
Americans are constantly surprised at the bitter resentment against their country that surfaces from time to time in Iran and in other parts of the Middle East. They do not seem to connect that resentment with actions of this kind.
Israel has its own reasons for actions of this kind. Those will be debated in Israel. US interests in North Africa should be paramount in our reaction to this event.
David D. Newsom is associate dean and director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University