WASHINGTON — President Reagan, declaring that retaliation against terrorism is acceptable "as long as you pick out the people responsible," said Tuesday that Israel may have been justified in raiding the Palestine Liberation Organization headquarters in Tunisia.
"As a matter of U.S. policy, retaliation against terrorist attacks is a legitimate response and an expression of self-defense," White House spokesman Larry Speakes said. "From the preliminary reports available to us, this appears to be what was involved in this case."
But Secretary of State George P. Shultz, speaking before Arab officials at the United Nations, said the United States opposes all acts of violence in the Middle East--including the Israeli air raid on Tunisia--regardless of the justifications cited for them.
Prevention of Violence
"We need to be clear in our opposition to the acts of violence, from whatever quarter they come and without respect to what is the presumed rationale for them," Shultz told angry Arab members of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council. "We have to be clear in our minds that we will do everything we can to prevent violence from stopping efforts toward peace."
However, Shultz added: "Obviously, from the Israeli standpoint, they conceive of it (the raid) as a defensive move against the terrorist actions that they see taking place in Israel."
Israel said the raid was in retaliation for several terrorist attacks, including the murder of three Israelis on a boat in a harbor in Cyprus last week.
Reagan, asked during a brief appearance in the White House press room whether Israel--or the Soviet Union, four of whose diplomats were kidnaped Sunday in Beirut--had a right to retaliate against terrorism, said, "Anyone has, so long as they can pick out the people who are responsible."
The PLO moved its headquarters to Tunisia after the Palestinian guerrillas were driven out of Beirut in 1982 by an Israeli invasion. Asked whether Israel had chosen the right target in bombing the PLO headquarters Tuesday, the President replied, "I've always had great faith in their intelligence."
But White House officials insisted that Reagan and Speakes had not intended to praise Israel's action.
"We still do not have the facts on this raid," one White House aide said. "We have to take a look at the targets, the casualties, the connecting line to recent terrorist incidents. Everybody knows that a faction of the PLO has taken responsibility for the attack in Cyprus. . . . But we are still looking at it. The President did not specifically endorse the raid."
Too Early to Judge
Officially, the State Department said it is too early to judge the raid. "We deeply deplore the rising pattern of violence, of which this latest incident is part," spokesman Charles Redman said, reading a prepared statement. "It underscores the need to work on the peace process."
A senior State Department official who attended Shultz's meeting with Arab officials at the United Nations said later that the rising tide of violence in the area "is contributing to a climate" in which the prospects of peace become more remote.
"I don't think there is any indication that Israel's intent in sending the air force was to disrupt the peace process," the official added. But he said others may intend to impede the progress toward peace.
"We see this violence coming for different reasons . . . . " he said. "Some are spontaneous acts . . . but others have been targeted by elements who want to derail the process to show that they must be listened to, that they have a role to play."
The official said the Arab leaders who spoke with Shultz--the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, Oman, Bahrain, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar--were angry about the attack. He said Shultz was told that "no Arab state can consider itself safe" from possible Israeli attacks.
In Cairo, the Egyptian government condemned the Israeli raid and canceled scheduled talks with an Israeli delegation over a border dispute involving the Red Sea resort of Taba. President Hosni Mubarak expressed "deep sorrow that Israel, which talks about peace, actually goes to another Arab country to kill Palestinians."
Visit by Hussein
The raid came as Jordan's King Hussein was visiting Washington in an attempt to arrange negotiations between a joint Palestinian-Jordanian delegation and Israel. U.S. officials and Middle East experts said they thought the raid would hurt the chances for peace talks but that the problem could be short-lived.
Hussein said the raid "should receive not only my condemnation but hopefully that of many in the world."
Jordan's Petra news agency quoted him as saying in a phone call to his brother, Crown Prince Hassan, in Amman that the aim of the attack was "to weaken the chances of real and comprehensive peace in the region."
'Some Distance Away'