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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Begin forcefully let his feelings be known the same day. He met with a visiting delegation of 190 American members of the United Jewish Appeal. Rarely had he ever appeared so angry in public. Referring to a report that originated in the Middle East Policy Survey, a Washington newsletter, he quoted Illinois Senator Charles Percy as advising Reagan to bring Israel to its knees. (Percy denies that he made such a remark, and others who were at the meeting in question back him up.) Standing in the Knesset building before tapestries by Marc Chagall that depict historical Jewish scenes, Begin declared, "Nobody, nobody is going to bring Israel to her knees. You must have forgotten that Jews do not kneel but to God." He added, "Nobody is going to preach to us humanitarianism." As for the problem of getting the P.L.O. to leave Beirut, he vowed: "If they do not go, well, we shall have to solve that problem. The P.L.O. will not stay in Beirut or Lebanon. No sir. Out of the question."

The intensity of Begin's feeling was also evident in a letter he sent to Reagan on the day before the Beirut invasion. After thanking the President for sending him greetings on his 69th birthday, Begin said, "I feel as a Prime Minister empowered to instruct a valiant army facing 'Berlin' where, amongst innocent civilians, Hitler and his henchmen hide in a bunker deep beneath the surface."

The U.S. stepped up pressure on Israel later in the week by requesting that it pull its forces back from West Beirut to the positions occupied at the beginning of the week. There was not much hope that Israel would comply. Washington, however, did veto a Soviet resolution at the United Nations calling for a worldwide arms embargo against Israel.

From the American perspective, Israel's assault on West Beirut came at a most inopportune moment. Habib appeared to have worked out a complex agreement that would have provided for the evacuation of the P.L.O. from Lebanon. That the Israelis seemed willing to jeopardize the Habib mission indicated to some dispirited American analysts that Jerusalem might actually prefer a bloody showdown to a diplomatic settlement that would preserve and possibly enhance the P.L.O.'s political status. Asked one U.S. official: "How can Begin bear to see [P.L.O. Leader Yasser] Arafat two months from now in Cairo, his apparatus intact, Mubarak as his ally, Saudi money behind him, and ready to talk to Reagan?"

Israeli officials deny any desire to scuttle Habib's mission. Begin and others in his government say that Israel shares the goal of negotiating a peaceful exit of the trapped Palestinians. The concern felt in Washington about deteriorating U.S.-Israeli relations was not shared in Jerusalem. Any disagreement between the two countries, Israel feels, is over tactics rather than aims. Increased military pressure, the Israelis argue, will help force a settlement. Said Shamir while in Washington: "We believe the P.L.O. will not leave Lebanon unless they are convinced that they have only one choice."

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