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Eyes on Begin

President Reagan has long had an affinity for the state of Israel. Hence he can be expected to greet Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin this week with special warmth and consideration. The meeting will be important. Not only because the two leaders will be establishing a personal relationship for the first time. But because this will give the President anoccasion to probe Mr. Begin's innermost thoughts on the urgent issue of peace and stability in the Middle East -- views Mr. Reagan critically needs as he forges a new US policy for the region.

There is little doubt that Mr. Begin will seek to strengthen the US-Israeli diplomatic and military relationship. In an interesting parallel with South Africa, Israel has been playing up its strategic importance as a bulwark against Soviet expansionism even while it has effectively put burning political questions on the back burner. The strategic idea draws sympathy in Washington. On the very eve of Mr. Begin's visit in fact US Secretary of State Haig made a point of speaking about exploring the possibility of enhancing the US "strategic relationship" with Israel. Such a buildup reportedly would include joint military exercises in Israel and greater use of Israeli facilities for maintaining US military naval and air forces.

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Mentioning the subject of strategic ties at this time may be intended to mute Israeli criticism over the Reagan administration's decision to sell five AWACS planes to Saudi Arabia. But, in any case, it would be shortsighted and imprudent for the administration to proceed with strengthening of the US-Israeli military relationship before having a clear assurance of Israeli intentions to move forward on the large political questions. The American people continue to support a close US tie with Israel. But they may reasonably ask precisely what they are gaining from that relationship as long as there is no further progress toward a comprehensive peace.

Ever since signing of the Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement, Israeli policy has seemed bent on frustrating implementation of the second Camp David agreement calling for Palestinian autonomy. Everything suggests Israel is gradually annexing the West Bank in line with Mr. Begin's passionate concept of a "greater Israel." The number of Jewish settlers there is now estimated at 22,000 or double the number a year ago, and while they are outnumbered they control much of the area's critical water supply. An Israeli who has prepared a study of the subject is quoted as saying, "Economically, socially, and legally the West Bank has been integrated into the Israeli system."

These are the issues which the President must forthrightly address if he wants to eliminate the cause of much of the conflict and instability in the Middle East. His conversations with Prime Minister Begin should not avoid the hard question: Does Israel still support UN resolution 242 calling for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from occupied lands? If so, how does it interpret that resolution? Precisely what slice of territory does Israel feel it must keep for reasons of its own security? What constitutes "secure" borders? What land is it prepared to give back to its rightful owners? Will it dismantle the new Jewish settlements? Is it prepared to deal with the Palestine Liberation Organization if the latter recognizes Israel's right to exist? Does it recognize the moral imperative of giving the Palestinian Arabs the same rights of self-determination as the Jews of Palestine demanded and won for themselves?

Behind such questions lies the obvious truth that Israel will never be secure -- nor can the United States guarantee its security -- until the rights of all peoples in the region are honored. It is to be hoped this is the message the President will try to impress on his guest in the days ahead.

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