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Chain of Mideast Events Strains U.S.-Arab Ties : Attack in Tunisia, Hijacking, Intercept Also Hurt Peace Bid

October 20, 1985|MICHAEL ROSS | Times Staff Writer

CAIRO — The series of events that included the Israeli raid on Palestine Liberation Organization headquarters in Tunis and ended with the U.S. interception of a plane carrying the hijackers of the cruise ship Achille Lauro has generated a new wave of anti-Americanism in the Middle East and severely strained Washington's relations with its moderate Arab allies.

Also, according to diplomats and government officials in several Arab capitals, it has damaged, if not destroyed, an effort to reach a comprehensive Middle East peace settlement and strengthened radical Arab governments such as Syria's and Libya's, while weakening pro-American leaders such as President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, King Hussein of Jordan and President Habib Bourguiba of Tunisia.

"It is a disaster," an Egyptian Foreign Ministry official said, "a disaster for us all."

Round of Violence

The region's latest round of violence began Sept. 25, when three Israelis were slain by terrorists on board a yacht in a Cyprus harbor. A week later, in retaliation, Israeli jets struck the Tunis headquarters of the PLO, killing 72 people.

A week later, four Palestinians hijacked the Italian ship Achille Lauro and killed an American hostage before surrendering to PLO mediators two days later in Port Said, Egypt.

Given safe passage from Egypt in return for freeing the rest of their hostages unharmed, the hijackers headed for Tunis on an Egyptian airliner. Tunisia, though, refused to let them land and the plane then was intercepted by U.S. jet fighters and forced to land in Sicily, where the hijackers were arrested.

PLO faction leader Abul Abbas, accused of being the mastermind of the hijacking, also was on the Egyptian plane. The United States sought to have him arrested in Italy, but the Italians let him leave the country. The affair chilled U.S.-Italian relations and quickly led to the collapse of the Italian government.

It was not the first time that Americans or Israelis had been the victims of terrorism or the first time that Israel had retaliated against the PLO. Indeed, there have been bloodier and more spectacular examples of both.

What distinguishes these latest events, analysts say, is that never before has such an incident been allowed to get so far out of hand politically. Before the Achille Lauro hijacking, no terrorist incident had caused so much damage to relations between the friendly countries victimized by it.

Handling Did the Damage

In both the air raid and the hijacking, the political damage was done less by the events themselves than by the way they were dealt with by all concerned. As a result, Tunisia and Egypt are furious with the United States, which is angry with Italy and Egypt, which is angry with Tunisia and Italy.

As an official in the Foreign Ministry in Cairo noted ruefully, "Everyone who put his hand in this fire got burned."

In Egypt, the seizure of the Egyptian plane has been greeted with shock, anger and dismay, and these feelings have not been assuaged by the way in which the incident has been celebrated in the United States.

Dependent on $2.5 billion a year in U.S. aid, President Mubarak initially sought to limit the damage by having his foreign minister denounce the U.S. interception of the airliner in relatively restrained terms. Soon, however, he was forced to escalate his rhetoric to keep pace with violent anti-American demonstrations here and with opposition demands that Egypt sever relations with the United States.

After being denounced by protesters as a coward for failing to take firm action against Washington, Mubarak called the airliner's seizure an act of "air piracy" and demanded an apology--to which President Reagan has said, "Never."

Fence-Mending Move

Egyptian Foreign Ministry officials, still hopeful that the damage can be contained, urged the Reagan Administration to at least send a special envoy here on a fence-mending mission. Such an envoy, Deputy Secretary of State John C. Whitehead, is now here, having arrived Saturday night after visiting Rome on a similar mission. But whether Whitehead's visit will be enough of a face-saving gesture for Mubarak depends on "whether the government can contain the popular uproar against the United States," a Foreign Ministry official said.

Even if civil calm is quickly restored, most analysts say that it will take months to put U.S.-Egypt relations back on the same level they were on before the Achille Lauro incident and that there will be more anti-Americanism now. "Scars will remain," said Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a respected political scientist at the American University of Cairo.

Beyond the domestic problems it has created for Mubarak, the airliner incident has weakened the position of Egypt and other pro-American states in the Arab world, analysts said.

"The Syrians and the Libyans are holding this up as an example of what America does to its friends," a Western diplomat said. "Events of the past few weeks have given the radicals much cause to attack the moderates," he said.

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