When Push Comes to Shove: Israel flouts U.S. diplomacy with an attack on Beirut

Israel flouts U.S. diplomacy with a ferrocious attack on Beirut

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Reagan opened his meeting with Shamir last Monday by protesting the civilian suffering in Lebanon. "American public opinion has a short fuse on this situation," warned the President. By raising questions about whether this use of U.S. weapons constituted "defensive action," which is a condition of arms sales to Israel, Reagan implied that the flow of military hardware could be curtailed. But the White House took a softer line in a statement it issued describing the 20-minute meeting. "The world can no longer accept a situation of constantly escalating violence." Reagan's advisers calculated that private pressure, rather than public prodding, would be more effective (and less likely to backfire) in dealing with volatile Prime Minister Menachem Begin.

The strategy did not work. Reagan was called at 10:30 p.m. Tuesday by National Security Adviser William Clark, who told him that Israel had begun a major attack on West Beirut. At a Special Situation Group meeting the next morning headed by Vice President George Bush and at a subsequent National Security Council meeting chaired by Reagan, the Administration tried to thrash out a response. Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger argued that subtlety had proved futile in dealing with Israel; sanctions were now necessary. George Shultz, who has kept a notably low profile since he took over as Secretary of State, expressed exasperation with the Israelis, but was reluctant to recommend harsh steps. "Shultz is playing it coy," says a White House official. "He doesn't want to go out on a limb by confirming the Israelis' worst suspicions of him."

Reagan adopted the view that challenging Israel too harshly would sacrifice what remains of America's influence over its prickly ally. "Our relationship is our strongest leverage," says an official. Severing this tenuous bond by cutting off weapons or recalling Habib "would give the Israelis a carte blanche to go into West Beirut," says one of Reagan's senior advisers. It was agreed, however, that the U.S. should vote for a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Israel if the measure could be modified to include references to the need for P.L.O. restraint, and if the mention of sanctions could be deleted. When the wording could not be suitably amended, Washington simply abstained, letting the resolution pass 14 to 0.

The official American reaction to the Israeli assault was contained in a private letter from Reagan to Begin. "Dear Mr. Prime Minister," it began. It was the first letter Reagan has not addressed "Dear Menachem" since the two men met last September. The President reminded Begin that U.S. weapons could only be used for defensive purposes. But a warning about possible sanctions that was included in an early draft was left out, partly at the behest of America's Ambassador to Israel, Samuel Lewis, who argued that even raising the issue would infuriate the Begin government. Reagan's accompanying public statement was, once again, even more muted. Said he: "I have expressed to the government of Israel the absolute necessity of re-establishing and maintaining a strict cease-fire in place." On the other hand, he noted his "strong conviction that the P.L.O. must not delay further its withdrawal from Lebanon."

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