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Why is Israel overreacting?

Israel's disproportionate response to recent guerrilla provocations is hard to explain, much less justify.

Thursday's ground assault through U.N. barricades in southern Lebanon, coming only four days after the Israeli helicopter attack that killed Lebanese Hezbollah leader Sheik Abbas Musawi, will do nothing to end the sporadic guerrilla attacks along Israel's northern border. In fact, those actions already have resulted in a deadly escalation of guerrilla activity.

The Israeli response also does nothing to strengthen the country's security, because the guerrilla activity in southern Lebanon didn't constitute a real threat to Israeli security in the first place. This is not 1967, and Israel's Arab neighbors no longer have the desire or the means to launch a attack that would threaten Israel's existence. The guerrilla camps inside Lebanon have become little more than an irritant that should not be allowed to divert Israel and its neighbors from the larger goal of a regional peace accord. Instead, Israel's overreaction threatens the future of a peace process that was fragile enough in the first place.

Finally, the ugly _ and utterly unnecessary _ confrontation with U.N. peacekeeping forces does grave damage to Israel's international reputation. At least eight U.N. soldiers were injured when Israeli troops and tanks burst through their barricades on the way to search for Shiite bases north of Israel's self-imposed security zone. If Israeli authorities were determined to respond to the guerrilla activity, they had any number of less drastic diplomatic and military options open to them. Why not exhaust them before violating U.N. lines and angering virtually the entire world community?

The timing and scope of Israel's heavy-handed military reaction makes no sense in an international context, but it may well serve Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's domestic purposes. Shamir would hardly be the first politician to manufacture or exaggerate a military incident to enhance his own electoral chances. Facing June elections that could end 15 years of Likud Party control, Shamir would benefit from an atmosphere of tension in which most Israelis might be loath to change government leaders. His bellicosity also plays well with the right-wing fringe parties whose support has been crucial to Likud.

Israelis who are more concerned about their country's long-term security than their political leaders' short-term fortunes should not allow their attentions to be diverted from the peace talks scheduled to resume in Washington Monday. If all parties choose to participate in good faith, those negotiations could result in, among other things, the creation of a truly secure border between Israel and Lebanon. That's more than Israel's periodic military forays into Lebanon have managed to accomplish.