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Mr. Reagan and the F-16s

By holding up the delivery of 10 F-16 fighter bombers to Israel, President Reagan has moved properly to try to stem the surge of violence in the Middle East. The administration denies that the decision is related to any specific action by Israel. But, in light of the pounding of Lebanon by Israeli planes -- attacks far out of proportion to the magnitude of Palestinian violence against Israel -- the suspension of military deliveries is a clear signal of displeasure as well as concern. To have done nothing would have been unthinkable.

The question, however, is where the United States goes from here. Israel is not dependent on those few jets; it already has many other F-16s and in fact, thanks to American aid, has become the dominant military power in the Middle East. The suspension of the deliveries is therefore only of symbolic and short-term importance. It is not until the United States comes to an understanding with Israel regarding what is or is not permissible Israeli "defensive" action that the problem will be addressed forth- rightly. Prime Minister Menachem Begin is scheduled to visit Washington in the fall, and that will provide the first opportunity to discuss the issue. Any resumption of the aircraft deliveries before then could weaken the administration's position and would therefore be unwise.

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It is not a matter of a confrontation with Israel, however. It is a matter of working out a constructive long-range US policy for the Middle East which serves the national interest and which has the broad backing of the American public. Part and parcel of such a policy, surely, has to be a willingness to make clear to Israel that US support, including the supply of arms, relates to common strategic purposes and therefore depends on progress toward peace.

There is no evidence yet that a comprehensive Mideast policy is in the making. So far Mr. Reagan and his aides have focused almost exclusively on building a so-called "strategic consensus" in the region to counter the threat of Soviet expansionism. But, in high-level US visits to the Mideast and during discussions with West European leaders, the point has been driven home that the push to build up Western military strength in the area will be unavailing if it is not accompanied by an equally vigorous diplomatic effort to resolve the Arab-Israeli dispute -- more precisely, the Palestinian question.

The lesson of Lebanon is clear. If the growing violence in this unhappy country leads to a total disintegration of order, there will be fertile ground for Soviet adventurism. How can the Russians possibly be stopped from playing a spoiling role in the Mideast unless the cause of regional conflict is removed?

Israel's furious attacks on Lebanon, undertaken now perhaps because of the vacuum in US policy, should be a warning to the Reagan administration that it cannot much longer delay attention to the root problems of th e Middle East.

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