Air strikes by Israel seen as deterrent to Lebanon peace
Israeli air strikes against Palestinian bases are complicating peacemaking efforts in Lebanon, US State Department officials say. This view is endorsed by Arab diplomats and others who are familiar with moves now being made by Saudi Arabia to help resolve the Lebanon crisis. Israeli officials disagree, arguing that the air strikes are not related to the crisis revolving around Syrian missiles in Lebanon.
According to an American close to Saudi thinking on the subject, continued Israeli air attacks on Palestinian bases will make it difficult for the Syrians -- and Saudi intermediaries -- to move toward any kind of a compromise over the missiles. He said that the Syrians, and the Saudis, cannot be seen by their fellow Arabs to be moving toward a Lebanon settlement with Israel at the same time that the Israelis are pounding the Palestinians.
"Does the White House really expect they can get indefinite Saudi cooperation with this going on?" the American confidant of the Saudis declared.
The latest Israeli air attacks in Lebanon occurred June 2 as President Reagan's special envoy Philip Habib prepared to return to the Middle East to resume his peacemaking efforts in the region. In Habib's absence, Saudi Arabia has been playing a leading role in attempting to defuse the crisis.
American officials argue that Israeli air strikes raise tension and create doubts about Israeli aims, thus complicating the task of the diplomats who are trying to prevent war between Israel and Syria.
"We have consistently from the beginning urged on all parties that any escalation of military activities of any kind is not helpful to the peace process," said a State Department spokesman, referring to Israeli air strikes.
State Department officials also think that Israeli rhetoric has been unhelpful. "The Israelis aren't leaving the Syrians with even a figleaf," a State Department official said.
But the Israelis have repeatedly, and publicly, insisted on their right to overfly Lebanon and to launch "preventive" strikes against PLO bases in that country.
In an interview with CBS television June 2, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin said that he had told Ambassador Habib, "We are going to continue our preventive operations against the PLO terrorists."
The Israelis remain skeptical about a Saudi role in resolving the crisis.
"If the Americans believe the Saudis are going to get a deal for them, they are wrong," said an Israeli official. "Saudi Arabia has never been able to deliver. . . .
Most officials in Washington seem to believe that Begin will refrain from attacking the Syrian missiles in Lebanon as long as Israel's election campaign is under way and as long as Begin gains political points by not taking such action.
At the United Nations, meanwhile, Lebanon's ambassador, Ghassan Tueni, pointed to what he considered to be one small step in the direction of resolving the crisis. In a telephone interview, Tueni said that several Arab nations were making progress toward restoring the all-Arab nature of the now all- Syrian Arab Deterrent Force (ADF) in Lebanon. One aim, he said, would be to tighten liason with the Lebanese government and help restore some degree of Lebanese authority to the situation. Almost every possible scenario for resolving the crisis includes proposals for the strengthening of the now-minimal authority of the Lebanese government.
A UN official said the UN has been urging the PLO to restrain its activities in southern Lebanon and that "the PLO has really tried to rein in. . . ."
The Israelis argue that their attacks into southern Lebanon have kept the PLO off balance and prevented them from undertaking any significant action against Israel.