MILTON BERLE, once the biggest name in television, used to hold up one hand to ask the audience to stop applauding and with the other hand simultaneously urge it to applaud. With Berle, this was a comedy routine. With the Reagan administration, it is a policy for dealing with Menachem Begin.
First it announces that it will sell F16 jet planes to Israel. Then Israel uses planes it bought earlier from America to bomb the nuclear facility near Baghdad. The administration retaliates by saying it will hold up delivery of the planes already sold. It follows this with some denunciation of the raid, then some backpedaling and then the announcement that the jets would be on their way after all.
Menachem Begin, a man who knows weakness when he sees it, then once again uses American-built planes for what he and probably no one else would consider defensive purposes. He bombs Beirut.He bombs the congested Palestinian neighborhood where the PLO and other organizations maintain their headquarters and he bombs the nearby Sabra refugee camp. Something like 300 persons are killed, maybe not a single one of them a certified member of the PLO, certainly most of them nothing other than civilians.
For this use of American-built planes and for the killing of civilians, the administration chastizes Begin. It once again holds up delivery of the additional planes. Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger says it is essential that there be some moderation in the Middle East and that Israel's policy is not moderate. Deputy Secretary of State William Clark also had something to say. He said the administration was disappointed in Begin and embarrassed by Israel's policy.
Now these are hardly strong words. To call Menachem Begin less than moderate is hardly an insult. And to say that the public repudiation of America by staging the bombing while its Middle East peace envoy was in the region is a disappointment and an embarrassment is not quite the same thing as making remarks about your mother's ancestry. Yet the administration backed down when Begin balked. James Baker III, the White House chief of staff, later explained that both Weinberger and Clark were speaking just for themselves.
Menachem Begin must be a hard man to reason with. The lessons of his life are harsh, terrible. He is, by birth, a Polish Jew, and there are, of course, very few left. He is a child of the Holocaust, of anti-Semitism both official and unofficial, of prejudice and bias. He inherited a legacy of pogroms, a history that makes the word paranoid meaningless. He came as an adult to Palestine and there fought for the creation of Israel. He knows of massacres -- Arabs of Jews and maybe some the other way around -- but what he really knows first hand is that life is hard. This is a life I would not want to argue with.
Maybe it is too much to ask that he be bigger than the experiences of his own life. Bigger than the Holocaust? Bigger than pogroms? Bigger than Stalinist anti-Semitism? Bigger than 40 or 50 years of Arab-Israeli war? The word moderation must hold no meaning for him, and Americans like Caspar Weinberger must, to Begin, live in a dream world -- a figment of the imagination where men do not kill on account of religion. Call it California. Call it anything you want, Begin can hardly think it exists.
But men like Weinberger have a perspective that Begin does not have. A Weinberger can isolate the recent events in the Middle East from the Holocaust. Begin manifestly cannot do that. A Weinberger can think first of American interests. It is not Begin's job to do that. But mostly, men like Weinberger, which is to say the administration, can send Begin a message that he does not have an infinite line of credit in America -- that we will not, for instance, approve the bombing of innocent civilians.
That is the message this country ought to be sending to Begin -- not a sputtering of contradictions and retractions. This is the only kind of message Menachem Begin can understand. It is important that he gets the message. The fragile truce in Lebanon depends on it. The very survival of Israel depends on it.