Opposite dilemmas: Israel tries to quit Lebanon, US more involved in Nicaragua
World news this week showed Israel trying to extricate itself from the disastrous consequences of one military adventure while the Reagan administration in Washington was trying to get itself deeper into another one.
Israel's efforts came in two parts. Its coalition government was proposing to contain a rampant inflation by a three-month wage-and-price freeze while at the same time trying to negotiate a withdrawal of its troops from Lebanon.
The Reagan operation against Nicaragua also came in two parts. One part consisted of parading United States naval vessels off the coast of Nicaragua, conducting military exercises nearby, and making sonic booms over Managua, the capital, by frequent US reconnaissance flights over that city.
The other part was a propaganda operation which first stressed the possibility of Soviet MIG-21 fighter aircraft arriving in Nicaragua and then, when the MIGs failed to emerge, placing the label of ''offensive'' on lesser Soviet weapons that did arrive.
Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger asserted that these weapons, which included combat helicopters and antiaircraft weapons with directional radar equipment, were beyond Nicaragua's reasonable defense needs and constituted ''offensive capability'' against Nicaragua's neighbors.
Some White House officials were quoted anonymously as regretting the nonarrival of the Soviet MIGs in Nicaragua. They felt that with real MIGs emerging from the packing cases aboard the Soviet freighters the White House might be able to persuade the Congress to lift its ban on US support for the Nicaragua rebel contras.
Meanwhile, the naval and aerial surveillance whipped up fear in Nicaragua of an imminent US invasion. The government there went on an invasion alert. If sufficiently frightened, it might do something to give further ammunition to Washington for winning Congress over to fresh and stronger action against the Sandinista regime.
The Nicaraguans are behind their neighbors in fighter aircraft. They have 12. El Salvador has 59, Honduras has 30, and Guatemala 16. That makes a total of 105 fighters in the hands of pro-US neighbors of Nicaragua. The 105 are backed by US naval and air forces in the area. However, Nicaragua now has several Soviet combat helicopters. These could give the Sandinistas the capability of attacking nearby contra bases in Honduras.
There is a fine semantic question here as whether the ability to attack the bases of one's own attackers constitutes ''offensive'' capability against the neighboring country from which come the attackers (the contras ).
Background conversations in Washington seemed to indicate that Secretary of State George Shultz was leading an effort to tone down and contain the propaganda operation being pushed by the more ''hawkish'' of Mr. Reagan's advisers.
Congress is not yet moving into a role in this situation, hence it is too early to weigh the probabilities. The desire in some White House and other quarters to take stronger action against Nicaragua is clear. The capability depends on how effective Mr. Shultz and the opposition in Congress will be in checking the ''hawks.''
The key question about Israel's future is whether the present coalition government can overcome Israel's inflation. The annual rate has passed 800 percent and is approaching the 1,000 percent level. That is the level where hyperinflation begins.
Every banker the world over remembers or has heard about the German hyperinflation of 1922 which paved the way for Hitler's coming to power. The German inflation was stopped by the issue of a new currency. It can be done. But in Germany the political damage had also been done.
Can a three-month freeze on wages and prices in Israel check the inflation and restore Israel's economy to health?
A strong government would take sterner measures. Washington is hoping that sterner measures will be taken. But about a third of Israel's wage-earners work for the government. They have long been accustomed to indexed wages; meaning wages that rise automatically with the inflation rate. Many other Israelis who work for corporations, banks, and other institutions also expect indexed wages.
The measures that stopped hyperinflation in Germany in 1923, and restored the German economy literally within one week, are probably beyond the capability of a coalition government. Israel's present coalition has not yet dared think out loud about such Draconian measures. If it could, and did, the end result would probably be a flight out of Israel of many of those with the financial ability to get out.
Israel can try to get its troops out of Lebanon as soon as possible. That would reduce the military burden on the budget. Negotiations have begun. The Lebanese are ready and willing to talk. They want the Israeli troops out of their country.
But the gap between opening positions was wide and deep. The Israelis asked for continued control over southern Lebanon by the local Arab military force that Israel itself long since recruited and trained. It would nominally be called a part of the Lebanese Army, but would actually be under Israeli control. The Lebanese said no to such an arrangement. Can a weak Israeli government agree to leave without retaining effective control over southern Lebanon? To do so would be to admit that the invasion of Lebanon was a total failure.
Egypt moved into the operation on Tuesday of this week by declining to hold new talks with Israel until Israel has first ended its occupation of Lebanon.
Washington has given Israel breathing space by handing over the entire US economic aid appropriation for the current fiscal year ($1.2 billion) in a single lump sum. Normally it is handed over in installments. The Jerusalem Post predicts that the Israeli government will be asking for more than $4 billion in US aid for the following fiscal year.
Israel's invasion of Lebanon has left Israel with hideous financial and economic problems. Military solutions sometimes create new and worse problems.