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American criticism fails to unite Israelis

Israelis are divided in their reactions to Washington's public show of displeasure at Israeli policies in Lebanon. On the one side, the government here has bitterly attacked the Reagan administration's suspension of scheduled deliveries of F-16 fighter planes and has acerbically dismissed sharp criticism by US Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger.

On the other side, opposition Labor Party leaders, wellknown doveish intellectuals, and some of the media have attacked the Israeli government's policies, which they say created the contretemps.

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The impact of these divisions on Prime Minister Menachem Begin's strategy is not yet clear. But they mark a sharp departure from times past when US criticism tended automatically to unite Israeli's political factions into a united stance against pressure from their closest ally.

They also mark a shift from an unwritten tendency here by politicians to mute criticism of military policies while Israel is engaged in military action. Such long-established patterns have been eroding during Mr. Begin's tenure.

Within the Israeli government, American criticism has stiffened backs. Israeli officials have let it be known that they consider the American move a betrayal of trust between allies under pressure from Europe and the Saudis. They say the US has broken its commitment -- though the arms are suspended only temporarily -- to reward Israeli withdrawal from Egypt's Sinai Peninsula with delivery of modern US weapons.

Two major dailies sympathetic to the government reacted angrily. Yedioth Aharonoth wrote that keeping "in step" with the Americans does not mean "total surrender" to a "master and slave" relationship "rather than one of friends." Maariv added that Israel's first obligation is to protect its besieged citizens in northern border towns "even if such a thing causes inconvenience to Washington.

Israeli's response to American pressure seems to divide along the same lines -- and with the same bitterness -- as the June election campaign that appears to have narrowly returned Mr. Begin to power. Reidents of northern towns under heavy rocket shelling from the PLO -- many of them less affluent Israelis originating from Arab countries who heavily supported Mr. Begin's party -- cheered him when he toured the area on July 22. One parliament member from Mr. Begin's coalition charged that any Israeli criticism of government policy in Lebanon "borders on treason."

However, Labor Party leaders -- while stressing that the F-16s should be delivered and northern settlements protected -- have charged Mr. Begin with heedlessly squandering American goodwill by a military policy in Lebanon that will not stop PLO shelling. Davar, the pro-Labor Party trade union paper, wrote that "refraining from criticism borders on a betrayal of our national interests."

Perhaps because of the sensitivity to criticism while Israeli settlements are still being shelled, the leading Labor Party critic has been former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was also a respected chief of staff. He has charged that the PLO cannot be wiped out by force. Mr. Rabin stresses that the only real solution to Palestinian bombardment of Israeli towns is a political one.

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However, Mr. Rabin adds, in a position supported by many Laborites, "if there can be no diplomatic solution and the [war of] attrition continues, I believe a majority of Israelis would support a large-scale military operation [against the PLO is south Lebanon]."

The July 17 Israeli raid on PLO headquarters in Beirut, which reportedly caused hundreds of civilian casualties, is also drawing criticism here. This, too, is mostly partisan -- although the Labor Party has refrained from attacking it officially, and Likud Cabinet Secretary Arye Naor called critics "nauseating."

Mr. Rabin has said that the raid weakens Israeli's moral case. And 45 activists from the dovish Peace Now movement -- mostly academics and intellectuals -- sent a letter of "moral anger" over the raid to the prime minister. He rejected the letter and charged that when previous governments headed by the Labor Party had ordered bombing of civilian populations in retaliation for PLO actions, they had sent no letter then.

ZE'ev Schiff, respected military correspondent of the independent liberal daily Haaretz, suggested that the raid was conducted in "in the heat of anger," but said it could not solve the problems t hat Israel faces.

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