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Increasingly isolated in the Administration on this point, Haig has argued vehemently against any open break with Israel for a year, since the Israeli air raid on the Iraqi nuclear reactor near Baghdad in June 1981. In part, he believes that public criticism has the same effect on the stub born Begin that waving a red flag has on a bull: it only provokes him to still more outrageous behavior. Also, Haig believes that since the Israeli invasion has smashed the military power of the Palestine Liberation Organization, U.S. diplomacy has a chance not only to re-create an independent and neutral Lebanon but move toward a general Middle East peace based on settlement of the longest-festering problem of all: the aspirations of the Palestinians living in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. In his view, an Israel freed of fears about P.L.O. terrorism would be more willing to grant real autonomy to the Palestinians; the moderate Palestinians, no longer afraid of P.L.O. reprisals, would be more willing to enter the autonomy talks with Israel. Once more last week, Haig argued that public criticism of Israel and Begin, let alone any threat of sanctions, would destroy all these prospects.
Haig, Weinberger, Clark and top White House officials carried their counterargumentsthat the President should get tough with Begininto the Oval Office in a meeting with Reagan that convened at 10 a.m. Monday, only an hour before the Israeli Prime Minister was to arrive. Recalls one participant: "It was a typical foreign policy meetingten guys giving eight different positions." Haig apparently won, but only for the moment. Accounts of what Reagan and Begin did eventually say to each other differ somewhat. Haig and other State Department officials privately stressed indications of harmony; White House aides insisted that Reagan had pressed Begin hard to agree to a lasting cease fire in Lebanon and to a speedup in the autonomy negotiations.
The White House, as Haig had hoped, made no public criticism of the Israeli action, although Begin received an extraordinary dose of acerbic reaction when he paid a courtesy visit to Congress. When Democratic Senator Paul Tsongas of Massachussetts asked Begin whether Israel had used U.S.-made cluster bombs in Lebanon, despite an earlier promise not to employ those deadly weapons in offensive operations, Begin replied that he did not know. Tsongas found that hard to believe. Senator Joseph Biden, a Delaware Democrat, jabbing his finger at Begin, warned that U.S. support for Israel was eroding. Begin shouted back: "Don't threaten us with cutting off aid to give up our principles!"