What price aid for Israel?
Several months ago Washington set the goal of getting Israeli, Syrian, and remaining PLO forces out of Lebanon by the end of the year. It is clear that goal will not be met. Negotiations are stalemated. The United States has recalled its envoys for consultations, and US marines are expected to stay in Lebanon well into next year. Israel is held primarily responsible for the lack of progress.
Two questions arise in the face of this disappointing impasse:
* Is President Reagan prepared to take strong steps in the Middle East?
* Is the US Congress prepared to back him up if he does?
The latter touches on a major obstacle in dealing with Israel, i.e. the effectiveness of the Jewish lobby in persuading legislators to vote ''the Israeli way.'' Consider: The administration requested $2.5 billion in aid for Israel for fiscal 1983. But the Senate Foreign Relations Committee authorized an extra $125 million in economic aid and another $350 million in military credits to be forgiven. And now the Senate Appropriations Committee has gone along with these increases - despite the opposition of the State Department.
It will strike many as ironic that, at a time when the administration is finally pursuing a more balanced policy in the Middle East and seems prepared to deal more firmly with Israel, it is meeting with opposition in the Congress. Ironic, too, because today there is less reason for a repetition of this historical pattern. As a result of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the American public has grown increasingly critical of Israel and more amenable to a Mideast settlement taking account of Palestinian aspirations.
Lawmakers therefore need be less sensitive to Israeli pressures and more willing to follow their own dictates. Many of those who voted to boost aid for Israel are sympathetic to the administration's Mideast initiatives. Their actions undercut the President's policy and seem to say to Israel: ''We're on your side no matter what you do, whom you invade, whatever land you annex.''
That the Begin government, for its part, has admonished the US administration for opposing increased aid to Israel is galling. It in effect says that Israel deems it has a legitimate veto over American policy regardless of its own actions. Indeed the US has only itself to blame for this attitude because it has been unwilling over the years to challenge Israeli policies. The rationale has been that by giving Israelis so much aid - it now is providing about $700 per head a year for Israel's 4 million people - they would have the confidence needed to make peace with the Arabs.
Patently, it has not worked that way. Israel today is the strongest state in the Middle East. It is using that military edge not to make peace with its neighbors, however, but to expand its territory. It rejected the Reagan peace plan outright and, although it has softened its stand, it continues to settle the West Bank in defiance of international law and the urgings of the US government. Now it has raised political demands for a pullout from Lebanon which are difficult for the Lebanese government to meet. Americans are not alone in their frustration. Many Israeli citizens themselves fear the effects of Mr. Begin's expansionist policies on the moral raison d'etre of the Jewish state.
This is not to put the onus for failed diplomacy solely on the shoulders of Israel. The Arabs must share the blame for lost opportunities; they have been short-sighted, too. But the last few months have seen some significant changes in the Arab community, a decided move toward moderation and willingness to negotiate a final peace. In response, Israel seems intent not on encouraging these changes but on undermining them.
It is, of course, for the Israelis to decide what their policies shall be. That does not mean, however, that the US should support them at whatever cost. The US has its own long-range interests in the Middle East, including establishment of an independent Lebanon, solution of the Palestinian problem, and an end of the Arab-Israeli conflict. This is also seen to serve Israel's security interests.
Halting aid to Israel is certainly not the issue here. The US is bound to remain committed to Israel's survival. But it is doubtful that President Reagan can make headway in the Middle East until he is ready to show by action as well as words that he means business. Short of cutting off aid, he could initiate a series of incremental reductions tied to specific Israeli policies. Why, for instance, should the American people subsidize the unlawful construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank? Why not deduct from the US aid package the cost of any additional settlement or expansion of old ones?
The US Congress, meanwhile, must find the courage to face up to any domestic political fallout. Will it demonstrate the statesmanship needed in support of the President's policies? On the answer to that may depend the prospects for peace in the Middle East.