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Mr. Reagan vs. Mr. Begin

The words which President Reagan sent through his special ambassador for the Middle East, Philip Habib, to Israel's Prime Minister Begin are not on the public record.

And that is the important feature of the diplomatic operation which stopped Mr. Begin's military offensive against the Palestinians in Lebanon (at least temporarily) and marked the first important success in foreign policy of the Reagan administration.

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The words must have been strong, and impressive. Mr. Begin had declared that he would not cease the offensive until the Palestinians had been driven north of Beirut. He had also said that he remove Syria's surface-to-air missiles from Lebanon unless the Syrians did it themselves.

Instead, on Saturday last he stood glumly by while Mr. Habib announced that "as of 13:30 hours local time, July 24, 1981, all hostile military actions between Lebanese and Israeli territory, in either direction, will cease."

Up to the time this goes to press Mr. Begin has observed that truce (except that he continued to send his reconnaissance aircraft over southern and central Lebanon).

Two facts attest to the remarkable quality of Mr. Begin's decision to stop shooting and bombing Palestinians and their unfortunate Lebanese neighbors. One is the look of obvious distaste on his face while he listened to the Habib announcement. The Other is that only three days before he had told Mr. Habib that he would not call off the offensive.

Something happened between Tuesday, July 21, and Friday, July 24, to change Mr. Begin's mind. That something was a message from President Reagan delivered through Mr. Habib. But what the message said is a state secret, as it should be.

Previous American presidents have tried open pressure on Israel. President Ford, in 1975, announced that he was holding up negotiations on further arms shipments to Israel pending a review of the program. This solidified opinion in Israel behind their government and brought the Israeli lobby in Washington into decisive action. It quickly and easily signed up a majority in both House and Senate in Washington for giving Israel what it wanted. Mr. Ford gave in.

President Carter repeatedly used public pressure on Israel, and must regret it now. Israeli settlements in occupied Arab territory were called illegal, publicly. Use of American weapons against Palestinians in Lebanon was questioned, publicly. Mr. Begin pushed ahead with his settlements in Arab territory. Use of public pressure on Israel tends to be counterproductive.

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We do not know whether President Reagan improvised his operation, or had thought it through in advance. But whether impromptu or planned, it worked. The essence of his formula was to work behind the scenes and out of sight and within the public context of greatest possible dedication to the welfare of Israel.

Thus, the truce was achieved without a public test of strength between the President and the prime minister, and without a public controversy between the White House and the pro-Israel community in the United States.

Early Reagan administration operations in foreign policy were ragged and amateurish. One example was confusion over China policy which has not yet been cleared up. Another was the contrast between a highly vocal anti-Soviet declaratory posture and abandonment of the grain embargo.

But there was nothing amateurish about getting Mr. Begin to call off his offensive against the Palestinians without having an open public row.

Obviously, the task was made easier for the President by the adverse reaction in many places, including among prominent leaders in the American Jewish community and in Congress, to the ferocity of the July 17 Israeli bombing attack which hit apartment houses in Beirut. Mr. Begin must have been told by some of his most devoted supporters in America that for once he had gone too far and could not be supported.

But that does not detract from the success which the Reagan administration has scored in this operation. This is grown-up foreign policy. Mr. Reagan deserves a cheer for stoping the bloodshed, even temporarily. And this success could clear the way for a fresh approach to the task of finding a long-term settlement.


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