Haig’s Quitting Leaves Israelis Unsure About U.S. Role in Lebanon

There has been unconcealed dismay in Israeli government circles at the sudden departure of U.S. Secretary of State Alexander Haig, recently-dubbed by Premier Menachem Begin as “Israel’s great and good friend.” The dismay has been compounded by on undercurrent of anxiety over the nomination as his successor of George Shultz, president of the Bechtel Corporation with its massive business ties with Saudi Arabia.

None of this is being said officially, of course In on-the-record reactions Israeli officials tend to stress the pledges coming out of Washington that there will be consistency and continuity in American policy.

In the immediate context of the war in Lebanon, which has been poised in suspense since Friday night’s cease-fire, the resignation of Haig is apparently producing two differing lines of reaction within Israeli policymaking circles.

On the one hand there are those who feel that Israel must now strike, and strike fast, to achieve the defeat or surrender of the Palestine Liberation Organization in west Beirut. The protagonists of this approach argue that once Haig’s resignation sinks in the tilt of U.S. Administration policy might veer away from Israel.

FEAR WEINBERGER APPROACH WILL DOMINATE

This school of thought points out that the U.S. has been supportive of Israel’s operation in Lebanon — or at the very least has condoned it — and the prime mover behind this policy in Washington has been Haig. It is no secret that Haig was locked in conflict with Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger over the question of the U.S. stance towards “Operation Peace For Galilee.”

The apprehension in Jerusalem now must be that the Weinberger approach will begin to dominate policy thinking in Washington with the resignation of Haig and the appointment of a former Bechtel colleague of Weinberger, George Shultz, to replace him. Time, therefore, is working against Israel if it is ever to achieve the goal Begin and Defense Minister Ariel Sharon have publicly proclaimed, the utter defeat of the PLO hard core holed up in west Beirut.

If there is no snap military move by Israel — say the advocates of this approach — and U.S. special envoy Philip Habib’s diplomatic efforts continue to flounder, Israel will find itself attempting to enforce a protracted siege of the terrorists in west Beirut, against a steadily eroding American stand and an increasingly hostile and impatient attitude on the part of other Western states.

ISRAELI OPINION INCREASES AGAINST ATTACK

In this connection it is noted here that the Europeans and friendly Latin Americans joined their votes to those of the Arabs, Soviets and hostile third worlders at the United Nations special General Assembly meeting last weekend.

On the other hand, there is a body of opinion within policy-making circles here that holds Haig’s departure must be seen as bringing to an end any thought on Israel’s part of defying the world and assaulting west Beirut by force of arms.

Even before the sudden and unexpected resignation, the protagonists of this line argue, an invasion of the PLO strongholds in Beirut was a difficult option for Israel to adopt. The whole world, including the U.S., was demanding it not be done, despite Haig’s private intimations that if it were done, he, ex post facto, would perhaps condone it. Inside Israel, moreover, a growing and vociferous body of opinion was speaking out ever more forcefully against attacking west Beirut, because of the inevitably high casualties to Israeli soldiers, and to Beirut civilians that such an attack would entail.

REASON FOR FIGHTING QUESTIONED

If this line of argument eventually gains the upper hand in the Cabinet, and an attack on west Beirut is ruled out — and the defeat of the PLO there is also not achieved by diplomatic efforts — then the government can be expected, naturally enough, to cite and stress Haig’s resignation as an unexpected factor that befell Israel from the outside and disrupted what otherwise would have been a totally successful operation.

The government will use this argument in what is bound to be — there are already clear signs of it a bitter public debate on the entire course of the war, and most especially the decision to extend the fighting beyond the originally-proclaimed 40 kilometer (artillery range) zone.

Last week’s operations against the Syrians on the Damascus road, which themselves claimed more than a score of Israeli lives and scores of wounded, have been savagely attacked in an increasingly restive Israeli press. In Haaretz yesterday the respected military commentator Zeev Schiff headlined his article on this issue: “What are they dying for” and asserted that by no stretching of the term could the fight for the Beirut-Damascus road be defined as an action for the survival and security of the State of Israel.

SHARON HITS BACK

Sharon is hitting back at the press and at the opposition. On Friday night, in a TV interview, he quoted an unnamed frontline soldier who, seeing the newspapers arrive at his unit, observed: “Here comes the daily dose of poison.” At a meeting of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Thursday Sharon, attacked by Labor on account of the high casualty figures, turned on his attackers terming them “the heroes of the Yom Kippur War” and asserting that he “had nothing to learn from you about casualties.”

But this sort of furious polemics will not necessarily sway Cabinet majority opinion behind the turbulent and controversial Defense Minister.

His Cobinet colleagues, facing now a desperately complicated and agonizing moment of truth, know that if they back him they will be held responsible, jointly with him, in the great debate’ that will begin as soon as the guns fall silent.

By the same token, though, the temptation to achieve a really dramatic and crushing defeat of the PLO hard core — and thus fully justify the casualties already suffered — pulls at the ministers as they grapple with the rapidly shifting situation.

HABIB USED UN VETO

Well-placed sources said the weekend cease-fire and the U.S. veto of France’s Security Council resolution were to be seen as closely linked: they were part of the backdrop that Habib had sought for his renewed efforts to negotiate a diplomatic solution in west Beirut.

The sources here acknowledge that Habib had demanded most strongly that Israel cease its fire — and Israel had complied. Sharon in his TV interview admitted that last week’s engagements, though technically triggered by Syrian infringements of the cease-fire, were “dictated” by Israel in terms of where and how the battles developed. Israel did not. Sharon said, reply to the Syrian infringements solely or strictly where those infringements had transpired.

Habib also apparently demanded of his government that it veto the French resolution — there by maintaining the diplomatic pressure on the PLO. The implication of the veto is that the U.S. will not demand an Israeli partial pullback in advance of the disarming of the PLO in west Beirut.

The key question preoccupying Jerusalem policymakers is: how long will that continue to be the American position.

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