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Behind the Headlines Habib Convinces the Skeptics

After special envoy Philip Habib talked to reporters last week immediately after briefing President Reagan on his recent trip to the Middle East a television news correspondent was overheard telling a colleague that now he believed Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon. The reporter said he thought Sharon was “lying” when he said on ABC-TV March 7 that “We (Israel) don’t have intentions to invade Lebanon or to attack Lebanon.”

But the reporter’s attitude has been the common wisdom for the last several months here in the media and among certain officials of the Reagon Administration. A day has not gone by without someone worrying about the possibility of the Israeli army moving into Lebanon, a move that was seen here as almost a foregone conclusion.

Habib may have put this attitude to rest for now by his statement to reporters at the White House that while the situation was still “fragile” in Lebanon “all parties realize more than ever the grave implication of a major break down of the cease-fire.” When he was asked about Israel directly, he said that Israel has given its assurance that it will not “attack” Lebanon unless provoked.

This is basically what Sharon said on March 7 and what Israeli Ambassador Moshe Arens said on ABC-TV’s “Nightline” last week and what Israeli officials have been saying in the Israeli press. However, Arens, who appears to be more outspoken “than his predecessors, predicted that the Palestine Liberation Organization will commit such a provocation. Many believe if it occurs it will be before Israel’s scheduled April 25 with drawal from the Sinai.

Coincidentally or timed, depending on one’s viewpoint, the State Department announced jusf as Habib was to report to Reagan that the cease-fire which Habib helped establish last July applies to terrorist acts that originate in Lebanon but are committed in Israel from across the Syrian has Jordanian borders.

Israel has always considered this a violation. But although Secretary of State Alexander Haig has mentioned on occasions Israeli concern about this, up to last week the State Department said the cease-fire only prevented military acts from Lebanon into Israel and conversely.

However, whatever Habib’s latest mission has done to continue the “fragile” cease-fire, it has done nothing to achieve Habib’s original purpose, that of lessening the threat to Israel from the force in Lebanon of the PLO and the Syrian army.

It is sometimes almost forgotten that Habib, a 62-year-old former Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, was called out of retirement by Reagan last May after Syria placed SAM-6 antiaircraft missiles in central Lebanon and Israel threatened to remove them by force. After Habib returned from his first trip to the area, Reagan praised the envoy for preventing a war for which “the guns were all cocked and ready to go.”

SYRIAN MISSILES, TROOPS STILL IN PLACE

But the missiles are still there almost a year later; so are 25,000 Syrian troops. In addition, since the cease-fire last July, the PLO has built its terrorist forces up to 15,000, one third of them in south Lebanon. The PLO forces have also been receiving a large number of weapons, including tanks, artillery and rocket launchers and anti-aircraft weaponry.

Yet the Reagan Administration’s major effort seems to be concentrated on preventing an Israeli attack to end this threat to Israel’s security rather than at alleviating the threat itself. This was the outcome of every Habib mission from the first that prevented Israel from knocking out the Syrian missiles, through the cease-fire which kept Israel from attacking PLO positions last July through Habib’s fifth and latest trip to the region.

Habib conceded last week that no progress had been made in having the Syrians remove their missiles or in reducing the threat to Israel from the PLO. “At the moment, the cease-fire was of more immediate interest,” he maintained.

But lack of progress in this area also harms the Administration’s announced goal of restoring the sovereignty of the Lebanese government over all of Lebanon. At present, 70 percent of that country is under control of the PLO and the Syrian army. As Arens noted last week, the “worst sufferers” in this situation are the Lebanese people themselves.

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