Israel's leaders said today the strike on Yasser Arafat's Tunis headquarters was in retaliation for an upsurge in Palestinian terrorism, especially the murder of three Israeli civilians in Cyprus last week.
But they also expressed hopes that the raid would not jeapordize chances for dialogue with Jordan's King Hussein, who since February has pursued a peace drive in partnership with Arafat and his Palestine Liberation Organization.
"This action was intended to demonstrate that there is no immunity for any element of the PLO anywhere," Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin told a news conference.
Rabin said that Israel would choose the time and place anywhere in the world to strike at "PLO terror in accordance with its judgment and its judgment only."
Arab reaction was sharp. An Egyptian government spokesman announced after the raid that "as a result of this criminal act, Egypt will not receive the Israeli delegation" that was due this week in an attempt to resolve claims to the resort town of Taba on the Egyptian-Israeli border.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak sent a letter to President Reagan concerning the raid. And later Mubarak asked reporters, "Does Israel really want peace?"
Saudi Arabia called at the United Nations for sanctions against Israel and urged the big powers to end military, economic and political aid to the Jewish state, Reuter reported. Syria and Libya said the attack was "criminal aggression against Tunisia."
The Israeli raid came after months of mounting frustration in the Israeli government as it faced increasing violence in the occupied territories, much of it claimed by the PLO, but much of it also seemingly beyond its control.
"The target this time was not the direct perpetrators," Rabin said, but "the command post that decides, plans and directs the terror acts." Rabin mentioned the recent seaborne attempts against Israel, the violence in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, and "the case of the despicable murder of the three Israelis in Larnaca."
Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Moshe Levy said the specific targets of the raid were a building housing Arafat's office, another housing his PLO headquarters and a third said to be the command center of "Force 17," the PLO secret service.
Despite some conflicting signals from Cypriot authorities about the affiliation of the men who murdered three Israelis on a yacht in Larnaca harbor before surrendering to the police, Israel holds Force 17 and Arafat responsible for the action.
"We know for sure that the planning and orders for the Larnaca attack came from the Force 17 headquarters in Tunisia," said one military spokesman. Other Force 17 commandos were said to have been captured off the Lebanese coast in August.
As the Israelis built their case for striking Tunis around the question of retaliation, they also were plainly aware of its potential impact on the already faltering peace process.
Hussein had hoped to bring Arafat's wing of the PLO into the peace process, depicting it as the most moderate as well as authoritative representative of the Palestinian people.
Hussein, now in Washington, and Mubarak, who saw Reagan there a week ago, were encouraging the United States to meet with a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation that would be approved by Arafat.
"Israel wants peace," said Rabin. "But if there is something that damages the chances of the peace process, this is the PLO terrorist effort headed by Arafat."
Support for the attack appeared to have been strong across the spectrum in the Israeli government.
Israeli radio reported that only Ezer Weizman, of the 10-man "inner cabinet" that decided on the strike, voted against it. Weizman warned of its probable impact on Egypt.