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Punishing friends.

Americans are missing the point when they congratulate themselves on the forcing down of an unarmed Egyptian airliner by F-14 jets of the U.S. Navy. That lawless act served the interests of terrorism more than those of the United States. The same can be said of the recent Israeli air raid on the headquarters of the P.L.O. near Tunis. The real losers in this latest round of the battle against terrorism were not the captured Palestinian hijackers but two important American allies: Tunista and Egypt.

President Reagan's initial remarks commending the Israeli bombing as a legitimate reprisal for the killing of three Israelis in Cyprus were most embarrassing for the government of President Habib Bourguiba of Tunisia. During his nearly thirty years in power Bourguiba has made close cooperation with the United States a tenet of his foreign policy. He supported the American war in Vietnam, and he would not have allowed the P.L.O to set up shop outside Tunis, which is also the home of the State Department's Foreign Service Institute Arabic Language School, without first obtaining Washington's approval. Bourguiba is one of the few Arab leaders who has taken a consistently conciliatory posture toward Israel. He has alos compiled a distinguished record of combating anti-Semitism.

The raid could not have come at a more inopportune time for the Tunisian government, which is grappling with the problem of designating a successor to Bourguiba, who is 82. Libya's Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi has added to its sense of insecurity by expelling 25,000 Tunisian workers and by making menacing gestures. The United States has tried to help by pledging to safeguard the country's sovereignty, but in Tunisian eyes the Israili attack with American-supplied jets made a mockery of such assurances. The United States did recoup some of its lost prestige by not vetoing the U.N. Security Council resolution condemming the bombing.

The damage to U.S. relations with Egypt could be more difficult to repair. Although a great deal of provocation, including the senseless murder of an american citizen, preceded the interception of the airliner carrying the Achille Lauro hijackers, Washington may come to regret its hasty response. Because of its preoccupation with terrorism the Reagan Administration overlooked the outstanding achievement of American diplomacy in the Middle East over the past decade: encouraging Egypt, the most powerful Arab country militarily, to renounce its hostility toward Israel. Was the capture of the four gunmen worth humilating such an important friend? Was there no diplomatic means of achieving an acceptable outcome? Would the Administration have taken comparable action in a dispute with Israel or Great Britain?

Despite President Hosni Mubarak's present fury, it would be premature to predict that the Camp David peace agreement between Egypt and Israel is about to go up in smoke. At a time when Egypt is falling behind on its debt payments, Mubarak would hesitate to forfeit the $2.3 billion in economic and military assistance the United States provides each year. However, his rejection of U.S. requests concerning the disposal of the hijackers and his lying to American officials about their whereabouts reveal that something was wrong in relations between the two countries. Mubarak's predecessor, Anwar el-Sadat, probably would have followed the U.S. Embassy's instructions in a similar situation, but the perception in Egypt that Sadat catered too much to American interests contributed to his demise. Mubarak evidently decided that he had more to lose by defying the Palestinians than by defying Washington. In al probability he made a mistake. He has already paid for it by being humbled by his American patron, and he may pay more in lost American aid.

Even before the Achille Lauro debacle, Egyptian-American relations were strained. The Egyptians are frustrated by the lack of progress in the peace process, their continued isolation in the Arab world and the weakness of their economy. They contend that they ha have taken far greater risks for the sake of peace than have the Israelis, and so they resent the Reagan Administration's increasingly pronounced tilt toward Israel in both economic and military matters. In short, Cairo is in a recriminatory mood, and Washington is a logical scapegoat. The forcing down of the Egyptian plane has encouraged this sentiment. The opposition press is fanning public anger by proclaiming that the United States has finally revealed its contempt for Egypt.

The damage to American prestige from the events of this month will not be limited to Egypt and Tunisia. Arab leaders throughout the region now have more reason to doubt the credibility of the United States as either a protector or a mediator. All this adds up to a great victory not for the Reagan Administration but for the extremists, both Arab and Israeli, who oppose efforts to widen the peace process. Thus, Americans' bragging to the contrary, the Reagan Administration has in effect given in to terrorism. How else does one describe its risking valuable, longstanding relationships for the short-lived satisfaction of revenge?
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Title Annotation:U.S. hijacking of Achille Lauro hijackers' jet
Author:Reed, Stanley
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:editorial
Date:Oct 26, 1985
Previous Article:Hijack backwash.
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