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Diplomatic damage control

IT would be a mistake to allow the ripples of the Achille Lauro incident to expand into ever-widening circles of trouble. It was the terrorists' seizure of the ship that was the original provocation. Egyptian, Italian, and American sensitivities may well have been affronted by what followed -- Egypt's turning over of the hijackers to Palestinian leaders, United States interception of the Egyptair aircraft and forcing it down in Sicily, the search of the aircraft on Italian soil by US marines, and Italy's r elease of reputed terrorist Muhammad Abbas over US protest. The circumstances of a crisis should make an untidy wake unsurprising. Diplomatic damage control in a crisis requires assuring allies hourly that no insult is intended as steps are taken. Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres's visit to Washington this week should be made an occasion for restoring, not exacerbating, the climate for Middle East peace. The takedown of the Egyptair aircraft and the holding of the four hijackers in Rome for justice represented the first dramatic collapse of a terrorist incident involving an American response. This should help break the mesmerism of the impression that terrorists can strike with impunity.

But some modesty is called for, too. The war against terrorism can hardly be said to be won by one air interception. Some Italian judicial officials say the trial of the terrorists may have been compromised by the nature of their apprehension, which they call a ``counter-hijacking.'' Italy objected to the setting foot on Italian soil of US marines and an attempt by US aircraft to divert an Italian flight taking the prisoners to Rome. Italy sees itself as a Mediterranean country, surrounded by an Arab wo rld with which it has had relations long before there was an America. While it thinks of itself as supportive of Israel, it sees its relations with the Palestinian community in the context of its larger Mediterranean setting. The five parties in the Italian coalition government have quarreled over Middle East policy. It would be unjust and a pity for the government headed by Bettino Craxi to have to endure a crisis over this affair.

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Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak also has to live with domestic fallout and the perception of insult behind the Egyptair interception, following Cairo's shock over President Reagan's too-quick approval of the Israeli air strike in Tunis. The fundamentals of US relations with Egypt -- Egypt's importance in its own right, its crucial role in forging a Middle East peace -- should be stressed. Mr. Mubarak was scheduled to meet today with opposition party leaders over the aircraft incident. He has to head of f a potential surge in anti-American turmoil on Egyptian campuses. These demands on the Egyptian President require more sensitivity in Washington than was shown in the euphoric moments of the Egyptair force-down.

Sovereign countries make their own demands on their political leaders. The Achille Lauro was an Italian ship in Egyptian waters, and the sole casualty was an American. One of the strongest arguments for evolving an international protocol on terrorist acts is to reduce the level of legal and diplomatic trouble in their wake.

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