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

Ronald Reagan made a point of not smiling when he took his seat in the White House Cabinet Room across from Yitzhak Shamir. The studied gesture was designed to reinforce the stern words he coldly read to Israel's Foreign Minister. An Israeli attack against the Palestine Liberation Organization guerrillas in West Beirut ran the risk of threatening the special relationship between Washington and Jerusalem.

A cease-fire must be maintained. Reagan's grim warning: "When P.L.O. sniper fire is followed by 14 hours of Israeli bombardment, that is stretching the definition of defensive action too far." A day later the Israeli bombardment of West Beirut began. It lasted for 14 hours.

The barrage that shattered the ninth cease-fire was the most ferocious assault yet in Israel's nine-week-old invasion of Lebanon, just as the bombing and shelling that broke the eighth cease-fire three days earlier had eclipsed the previous battles Israeli tanks rolled into West Beirut in four columns, carefully splitting off strategic areas held by the Palestinians (see following story). Naval gunboats lobbed round after round into the business district, where fires raged out of control because of the lack of water and power. Artillery shells smashed once safe havens such as the American University Hospital, the Commodore Hotel and the Soviet and French embassies. As a finale, American-made jets swooped down to strike the staggered city while the Israelis solidified their new positions.

Once again Israel had unleashed its awesome arsenal in defiance of the close ally that supplied most of its weapons The blow came just when U.S. Special Envoy Philip Habib seemed on the verge of salvaging a diplomatic victory for the U.S. by negotiating a peaceful evacuation of the P.L.O. from Lebanon. As Israel's terrible swift sword sliced into West Beirut, in full video view of a war-weary world, the U.S. was reduced to muttering public protests.

Reagan has been one of the staunchest believers in America's bond with Israel, but his feelings of loyalty have been deeply affected by the continuing bloodshed in Lebanon. "I lost patience a long time ago," the President noted sharply to reporters on returning from Camp David the weekend before Israel's latest assault. More than anything else, the vivid television coverage of Israel's relentless pummeling of civilian areas has altered the President's thinking. Referring to one powerful image broadcast a week ago, an aide says: "That picture of the baby with arms burnt had more impact on him than 50 position papers." An Administration aide attaches even more importance to the President's gut-level reactions. "Reagan," he says, "gets 50% of his foreign policy from Dan Rather."

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