An Israeli mission secretly seeking Dutch support for repeated incursons into Lebanon and Israel's highly limited "autonomy" for West Bank Palestinians has failed, another step in the deterioration of Israeli relations with the West that includes possible U.S. negotiations with the PLO.
Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan quietly slipped out of The Hague on July 27, one day early, without gaining the help he sought from Israel's best European friend. The abrupt turndown by the Netherlands points to Israel's growing political isolation. More so today than at any time in its 30-year history, Israel is on the defensive everywhere -- including Washington.
This isolation is intensified by Israel's widely criticizedpounding of Lebanon by air and sea. U.S. officials believe a reason for the bombardment that has taken lives of Lebanese villagers is to stop movement by the Palestine Liberation Organization toward recognition of Israel's existence as a sovereign state. That change by the PLO would trigger face-to-face U.S. negotiations with the PLO leadership, with ominous consequences for Israel's own West Bank policy.
To help avert such consequences, ailing Prime Minister Menachem Begin asked the Dutch for public support. Instead, Dayan was coolly informed in The Hague that Israel's bombardment of Lebanon was playing directly into the hands of the Soviet Union and must stop. Dayan also was told that the Israeli-Egyptian treaty could not stand by itself much longer but must be fleshed out with participation of moderate Arab states -- especially Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
That same line is hardening opinions against Israel in West Germany, despite the trauma of the Holocaust that has influenced Bonn's policy toward Israel since 1945. Chancellor Helmut Schmidt has warned Israel about the risks of Europe losing Arab oil but much more about the dangers of Soviet penetrations into the pro-Western Arab world if the Palestinian question is not resolved.
Behind all this is the possible dramatic move by the PLO. Past headlines about PLO acceptance of Israel's right to exist have proved false alarms. This time may be different. To some U.S. officials, that explains Israel's massive air raids -- using forbidden U.S. aircraft -- on Lebanon.
These official speculate that, because a PLO policy change would end the U.S. embargo on official contracts with the PLO, Israel does not want it to happen. Bombing Lebanon undercuts the PLO moderates who want the change; it reinforces the extremists who oppose it.
The long-rumored PLO switch on Israel appears more realistic this time principally because of careful U.S. support for the move. During President Carter's summit meeting with Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev in June, Austrian Prime Minister Bruno Kreisky privately asked him how the United States would react if he welcomed PLO chief Yasser Arafat as a head of state. The Carter reply: fine.
Arafat's July 6 visit caused a crisis in relations between Austria's chancellor and the Israeli prime minister. Being attacked both Kreisky and former West German Chancellor Willy Brandt, who attended as the representative of Europe's Socialist parties.
But the visit, long in preparation, broke new ground for the PLO's possible change of heart about Israel. The next step will come later this month at the United Nations when the United States and Western Europeans will try to draft face-saying resolutions that would complete the PLO's shift to a historic new Israeli policy.
Dayan failed at The Hague to keep one Western European state firmly on Israel's side during the bitter in-fighting on the PLO issue. In London, the switch to Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has closed a friendlier British door to Israel; France long ago ended its pro-Israeli policy.
In Washington, the approaching 1980 presidential election normally would doom action by the United States that could be regarded as anti-Israel. Political risk or not, however, Carter is committed.
He has twice pledged publicly that, if the PLO recognizes Israel, the United States will start talks with PLO leaders. Such talk are exactly what is needed to break the logjam over autonomy for the West Bank-Gaza Arabs.
Since failure of the autonomy plan is blocking the wider Mideast peace that Carter thought he won at Camp David, the political equation in Carter's uphill fight for a second term clearly favors doing business with the PLO, as the Europeans desperately want. That is why the failure of Dayan's Dutch mission sent out shock waves from Jerusalem to the White House.