Few people familiar with Israeli life can be insensitive to Israel's rationale in intercepting a Libyan civilian jet and holding its passengers for the time it took to determine they were not the top Palestinian terrorists being sought. The rationale is that Israel, to protect itself against the terrorists generously encouraged by its enemies, cannot afford to be the one party that respects the niceties of the law. The possibility of plucking an Abu Nidal from a plane that was flying from Libya, one sponsor and sanctuary of terrorism, to Syria, another, apparently danced before Israeli eyes. That the plane was returning from a conference that had ended in public threats to dispatch suicide squads against American interests might have seemed an additional and useful political cover.

It remains, however, that Israel may pay a heavy price for the mission. This has little to do with the general international tut-tutting and even less to do with the criticism that Israel is receiving at the United Nations and elsewhere from those who themselves practice or condone terrorism against Israel.

No country has a greater physical and psychological need to maintain freedom of the airways than beleaguered Israel. Yet it committed an act of piracy that will inevitably strain further the presumption of safety on which its own civilian air travel depends. Moreover, the Israelis, with their desperate need for diligent international cooperation against terrorism, have weakened their case for asking others to provide it. Thus have they given a boost to a form of violence of which Israel itself is the leading victim.

It is observed that had the Israelis captured someone like Abu Nidal, they would now be saluted as heroes in the war against terrorism. That might have been adequate compensation for the Israeli government or large parts of the public. But it is compensation that is not available: the operation failed. Anyway, nothing in the Israeli-Palestinian record indicates that even a counter-terrorism coup of great magnitude would actually crimp Palestinian terrorism. That menace flows from a widely felt political grievance and, where this or that violent expression of it can be and must be combated, the grievance has a life of its own and can only be treated, finally, by political means.

The United States, after the hijacking of the Achille Lauro, also intercepted a civilian airliner thought to be carrying terrorists. It did so on the basis of superior intelligence and in the immediate circumstances of a specific incident. The recollection of that episode and perhaps the intention to keep the option open restrained official American comment on the Israeli intercept. But it is tricky terrain. The Israelis stumbled badly.