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Washington, on the other hand, feels that the continuous shellings threaten to crumble hopes for a settlement. Early last week Habib sent a blistering cable to the State Department asserting that his mission was being undermined by Israeli military outbursts. Reagan made the point to Shamir at their meeting. "One reason Habib can't make any progress on the negotiations is because he has to deal with cease-fire violations so often."
At the outset of the crisis, former Secretary of State Alexander Haig felt that Israel's invasion gave the unprecedented leverage with both the P.L.O. and moderate Arab nations. If the P.L.O. could be crippled as a military power, he reasoned, Saudi Arabia and Jordan might feel less inhibited in joining Egypt in the Camp David peace process. These heady ideas soon disappeared. Instead of seeking a general settlement of the Palestinian problem, Habib had to concentrate all ot his efforts on working out an evacuation plan for the trapped P.L.O.
Nonetheless, if the U.S. produces a peaceful resolution of the immediate crisis it will strengthen its position as the dominant superpower in the area. By week's end Habib seemed to have the negotiations back on track. Said one hopeful U.S. official: "What we had worked out by Tuesday is still there, and pointing toward a settlement."
If Habib's mission fails, it will be a serious blow to American prestige. Israeli attacks on West Beirut reinforced the impression that the U.S. is a helpless giant that can neither influence Israeli actions nor come to grips with events in the Middle East. Signs of U.S. ineffectualness in the current crisis have been conspicuous since the day in June when Reagan sent a well-publicized message from the Western economic summit meeting at Versailles urging Begin not to invade Lebanon. Begin sent his troops in the next day.
Thcse intimations of American weakness have already reverberated throughout the region. King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, the closest Arab ally of the U.S., called the State Department after the Israeli invasion and asked that Reagan "exercise a more potent role [and] shoulder his responsibility in full, for Arab patience has run out. In Kuwait, some members of parliament called for severance of diplomatic and economic ties with the U.S., including the imposition of an oil embargo. Tarik Aziz, a Deputy Prime Minister of Iraq, told TIME:
"The indiscriminate killing in West Beirut is vivid evidence that neither of the two superpowers can step in. It is evidence of impotency in the face of Zionist aggression." In Cairo a foreign ministry official noted, "America is projecting an image of contusion, incoherence and weakness."
In Europe exasperation with U.S. floundering, combined with cynicism about Washington's possible complicity in Israel's wish to exterminate the P.L.O. has intensified complaints about the Administration's overall foreign policy. "Reagan has never proved himself convincing in threatening to punish Israel, said a French foreign ministry official.