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Hostages for sale

IF you look back over the record of bombings, kidnappings, hijackings, and other forms of violence committed by or in behalf of Palestinians in their continuing war against Israel, you will notice that there has been much more of it directed against Americans since the Reagan administration came to office in Washington. Such things happened during the Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations, but the pace, frequency, and violence of the acts have escalated. And there is no doubt that in some recent cases, particularly the latest kidnappings, the specific target has been the United States and its citizens.

Why the difference?

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During the Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations the government of the US tried to be consistent and indefatigable in its efforts to bring Israel and its Arab neighbors to a peace table. Those three Presidents worked at finding a formula for a ``comprehensive and lasting peace'' in the Middle East. The effort was launched by Henry Kissinger during the Nixon administration after the 1973 Arab-Israel war. It reached its climax at Camp David, when Jimmy Carter actually persuaded Israel and Egypt to sign a peace treaty.

Since then one single, brief American peace proposal was put forward. In September 1982, in the wake of Israel's invasion of Lebanon, President Reagan put forth a peace plan based on the Camp David formula. Many Middle East specialists in the US thought it was a good plan. It was immediately rejected by Israel. Little effort was made then, or since, to revive the plan or to get diplomacy working again toward following it.

During those same years the US government has given up any attempt at evenhandedness in the Middle East. There is an argument over whether then-Secretary of State Alexander Haig actually gave the Israelis a green light for their invasion of Lebanon. Some say the light was amber. The essential fact is that Washington could have prevented that invasion. It had been in preparation for months. Its coming was publicly stated by the Israeli ambassador in Washington. It was allowed to happen.

When the invasion reached its climax in the destruction of a swath of Beirut, Washington finally called a halt and helped to persuade Israel to make a partial withdrawal from Lebanon. But then it proceeded to increase aid to Israel. After that, weapons were given rather than sold. The Israeli economy was heavily underwritten. American markets were made easier for Israeli goods. On Nov. 19, 1983, the US signed an agreement for ``strategic cooperation'' with Israel.

During the Nixon, Ford, and Carter years the US was remarkably evenhanded in its relations with Israel and the Arabs. It practiced to some extent a policy of balancing the armaments of both. It conserved its ability to act as a middleman, as an honest broker, between the two. It was still trusted by many Arabs to be fair to them in the search for a comprehensive and lasting peace.

That position of evenhandedness between the two has largely disappeared during the Reagan years, except for that brief peace proposal of September 1982. Before 1981 the US behaved as a comparatively neutral friend to both. From 1981 on it has behaved more like an ally of Israel against the Arabs. In effect, the US paid for the invasion of Lebanon by replacing the losses of weapons and helping underwrite the Israeli economy.

A New York Times headline of Feb. 7 says, ``Soviet Heightens Persian Gulf Role; Relations Predicted With the Saudis as Strain Between US and Arabs Grows.''

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Terrorism, whatever its origins, cannot be justified. Kidnappings, bombings, and violence against innocent civilians of any nation or background are despicable - and probably, in the long run, counterproductive, too. But Americans should realize their government's policies do have predictable consequences.

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