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Administration Pulls Back from Public Confrontation with Israel

The Reagan Administration pulled back today from a public confrontation with Israel over Israel’s continued attacks on terrorist targets in Lebanon, calling such a dispute “counterproductive.”

“We feel that they (the Israelis) are as committed to a cessation of hostilities, of violence (across the Israel-Lebanon border) as we are,” State Department spokesman Dean Fischer stressed. He said the Administration did not consider Premier Menachem Begin as an “obstacle” to peace.

Fischer said it would be counterproductive to comment on the criticism of Begin yesterday by two top Administration officials, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and Deputy Secretary of State William Clark. Both charged that Israeli military actions had undermined U.S. peace efforts in the Middle East.

“Our efforts are focussed on the achievement of a cessation of violence on both sides of the border,” Fischer said today. “At this sensitive juncture, we are not going to talk about things that are behind us. Instead, we are concentrating on a reduction of the level of violence,” he said.

REPLIES TO CHARGE BY BEGIN

Fischer, however, did reply to a charge made today by Begin that there has been no progress in U.S. special envoy Philip Habib’s efforts to end the violence across Israel’s northern border. He said the fact that Habib, who was in Saudi Arabia today, continues on his “mission unabated, speaks for itself.” He said that as long as Habib’s mission goes on, “We continue to be hopeful that it will succeed.”

At the same time, the State Department seemed to be accepting the Israeli position not to use the term “cease-fire” in connection with Habib’s mission. Israeli Ambassador Ephraim Evron, after meeting with Secretary of State Alexander Haig yesterday, used the term “peaceful arrangement.” Fischer said this is a “semantical point” and that what both Israel and the U.S. want is a “cessation of hostilities.”

He said other parties are trying to use their “influence” with the PLO since the U.S. has no contacts with it. Fischer refused to name the other parties although State Department sources acknowledged that one of them is Saudi Arabia.

SAYS U.S.-ISRAEL RELATIONS REMAIN CLOSE

Fischer stressed that U.S.-Israeli relations remained “close and friendly” and would continue to remain so even though, as he noted, friends do have disagreements. His statements today seemed to be a conscious effort by the Administration to tone down the growing criticism of Israel that has appeared in Washington in the aftermath of Israel’s air raid on PLO headquarters in Beirut last Friday which resulted in heavy civilian casualties.

Meanwhile, Israel’s usual supporters in Congress have not jumped to its defense. Rep. Stephen Solarz, (D. N. Y.), in television appearances last night and this morning, was the only member of Congress to publicly defend Israel’s raid on Beirut.

He said it was an effort to destroy the “head” as well as the “body” of Palestinian terrorists. Solarz pointed out that most members of Congress continue to support arms for Israel and that there is a majority in the Senate and the House opposed to selling AWACS reconnaissance aircraft and other arms to Saudi Arabia.

Reagan stressed yesterday that there is no review of American policy toward Israel or whether to hold up any other arms shipments to Israel beyond the 10 F-16 jet fighter-bombers which were suspended indefinitely following the Beirut raid.

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