Senior Israeli Official Warns a ‘war of Attrition’ Will Not Be Tolerated; Time is Running Short

A senior Israeli official warned somberly today after the Cabinet meeting that “time is pressing, time is running short.” He noted that the Cabinet ministers, who devoted their discussion to the conflict in Lebanon, “are keely aware that the present situation cannot go on indefinitely” and that Israel, moreover “will not tolerate a war of attrition” developing in and around Beirut.

According to the official, the general Cabinet feeling was that the negotiations dealing with the evacuation of Palestine Liberation Organization forces from west Beirut “are not progressing as they should, they are not moving ahead as had been hoped.” (See related story, P.2.)

His tone seemed more somber than at any time since the present negotiations in Beirut began three weeks ago, under the pressure of Israel’s siege around the western part of the city.

The senior official noted pointedly that U.S. mediator Philip Hobib had predicted a break through by the weekend and had now to explain why it hadn’t happened. This was not the first time Habib’s optimism had proved unfounded, the official said.

Also unfounded, as far as Israel could tell, was the public assertion over the weekend made by Lebanese negotiator (and former Premier) Saeb Salaam that the PLO had withdrawn its earlier demands for a residual political and military presence in Beirut. Salaam had announced the supposed PLO concession on TV, but, said the Israeli official, there was no subsequent tangible evidence to support his statement.

ISRAEL REACTING WITH RESTRAINT

Speaking against a backdrop of escalating artillery duels in Beirut between the Israel Defense Force and the PLO, the senior official warned that Israel would not countenance a ” war of attrition.” He stressed that for the past several days it was invariably the PLO that initiated the artillery exchanges. Israel, he added, was reacting with restraint: it was not utilizing the force or firepower at its disposal.

An army spokesman announced this evening that 28 Israeli soldiers had been wounded today in heavy artillery exchanges. Casualties were reported to be heavy on both sides as PLO forces inside west Beirut pounded most of the Christian areas in east Beirut.

If the Cabinet concluded that diplomacy was leading nowhere, it would consider other alternatives to get the PLO out, the senior official continued. This certainly need not mean blanket bombing — “as the West did during World War II to Dresden or Hamburg. We have a different morality ….” Other military options were available, he noted.

He said there might well be another Cabinet meeting later in the week. Meanwhile — this seemed to be his implication — the Cabinet had once again decided to give time to diplomacy, while not letting up on the military pressure being applied to beleaguered west Beirut.

The official said there were indirect diplomatic contacts between Jerusalem and Moscow following the damage done last week to the Soviet trade mission in Beirut, apparently from Israeli shelling. He did not elaborate.

VARYING ASSESSMENTS OFFERED

Among the ministers there are understood to be varying assessments as to the situation in Beirut. Some believe the PLO is duping Israel and merely playing for time. Others still have faith in the diplomatic efforts, though they themselves are less optimistic now than say a week or 10 days ago, in view of the slow and complicated course of the negotiations.

The Cabinet heard reports from Premier Menachem Begin, Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir, Defense Minister Ariel Sharon and the Foreign Ministry’s Director General David Kimche. Kimche was in Beirut yesterday for talks with Habib and Lebanese officials. His efforts apparently reflected continued American optimism that the diplomatic process, given time, can achieve success. The U.S. is understood to be maintaining its pressure upon Israel not to invade west Beirut.

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