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Behind the Headlines Strands in the Lebanese Conflict

With the negotiations under U.S. envoy Philip Habib in Beirut still apparently stalemated, hopes for a peaceable settlement to the crisis in Lebanon is focusing on Washington where the Foreign Ministers of Syria and Saudi Arabia are to hold talks with American policy-makers. The ministers’ visit is tentatively set for next week, but this may be postponed because of Iran’s attack on Iraq that started Tuesday night.

According to reports from Beirut, Syria’s attitude is now crucial — in the stalemate and in the hopes to resolve it. Syria suddenly announced last weekend a reversal of its earlier readiness to take in the estimated 5,000-6,000 Palestine Liberation Organization fighters whom Israel wants ousted from Lebanon. Syria now says it is only prepared to take in the “leaders”; the rank and file will have to find refuge elsewhere.

But refuge elsewhere is hard to find: the Arab states have shown singular lack of enthusiasm in offering a new home to this large bond of armed and disgruntled Palestinian fighters.

Israeli sources familiar with the Habib negotiation cite the new Syrian turnabout as the single largest obstacle preventing progress in the talks. Some Israeli analysts see the Soviets’ hand behind Syria’s move; they surmise that the Kremlin is seeking in this way to rob Washington of a diplomatic triumph — with far reaching possibilities of political success in the Arab world.

SYRIA PLAYING ITS OWN GAME

Other Israeli observers believe Syria is playing its own game: Damascus, they say, is seeking a broad-based understanding with the U.S. regarding the whole issue of Syrian presence in Lebanon. In return for Syrian “cooperation” over the immediate problem of Beirut, the Syrians want tacit American support for the continued deployment of Syrian forces in eastern Lebanon (the Bekaa valley). This area, bordering Syria itself, is plainly of strategic and defensive importance to Damascus.

At present, the U.S. position is still that Lebanon must be restored to full independence by the removal of all foreign forces — meaning the PLO at the first instance, and then the Syrians and the Israelis.

Israel for its part also subscribes, officially, to this U.S. position, though there are some Israeli policymakers who would be prepared to countenance a continued Syrian presence in eastern Lebanon in return for a continued Israeli presence direct or by Lebanese Christian militia leader Maj. Saad Haddad as its proxy — in southern Lebanon, in the 25-mile wide strip bordering Israel.

The Syrian Foreign Minister’s talks in Washing ton will apparently dwell on these issues. Analysts see the presence there of his Saudi colleague as significant. The Saudis have footed the bill for the Syrian “Arab peacekeeping force” in Lebanon to date, and they are reportedly offering money to Syria to pay for taking in the PLO evacuees from Beirut now.

A PARADOX HOLDS SWAY

In Israel, meanwhile, the paradox which has dominated the political debate here throughout the siege of Beirut continues to hold sway. Simply put, it is this:

The more public dissent there is inside Israel, the more voices are heard against attacking west Beirut, the more cocky and recalcitrant the trapped PLO men become because they take encouragement from the internal debate in Israel. And, the more recalcitrant the PLO becomes, the unlikelier it is that they will leave peaceably. Therefore the arguments of those in Israel who favor force become stronger and more persuasive.

Government ministers persistently point out this paradox to Labor Party opposition figures and to others who oppose the use of force in Beirut. They argue that all Israelis, government and opposition, want a peaceable end if possible, with maximum political gains for Israel.

Thus it should be in every one’s interests to put up a strong and united negotiating front. Above all, the beleaguered PLO must be convinced that Israel will use force if it has to, otherwise there will be no incentive for the PLO to leave peaceably.

Opposition leaders say they recognize the logical validity of this argument. Nevertheless, they say, they must make their opposition to the use of force public or else, they fear, the pro-force camp within the Cabinet would use their silence as meaning acquiescence and would get a majority for the assault.

DOUBT AND DISSENT IN THE CABINET

This week the internal debate has taken on an even more agonized aspect. Doubt and dissent within the Cabinet itself has surfaced.

It was no accident that Interior Minister Yosef Burg, the oldest Cabinet member, was reported as referring his colleagues to the historical lesson of Barcelona during the Spanish civil war in 1936 when it took Gen. Francisco Franco three months of bloody street fighting to capture the Loyalist-held city. Burg’s message was clear, he does not want Beirut to become Israel’s Barcelona.

Other ministers are known to share his fears and doubts. Among them are Zevulun Hammer, Mordechai Zipori, David Levy and possibly even Simcha Ehrlich. (Both Levy and Ehrlich are Deputy Premiers.) If it came to a vote these ministers would perhaps not comprise a majority, but they would be an impressive and powerful minority. Premier Menachem Begin, naturally, would be reluctant to take such a crucial decision without broad-based Cabinet consensus, especially since the Knesset opposition is not supportive.

DILEMMA FACING ISRAEL

Basically, the dilemma exercising all minds here is whether armed invasion of west Beirut, even if it led to the utter defeat of the PLO, would be worth the Israeli casualties, the Palestinian and Lebanese deaths, the massive civilian destruction, and the worldwide opprobrium, all of which would almost inevitably result.

The extent of that likely opprobrium was rudely brought home to Begin last week with a stern message from President Reagan, urging an alleviation of aspects of the siege of west Beirut. The president wrote bluntly that an Israeli “assault” on the besieged part of the city would “grievously affect our bilateral relations.”

The warning seemed to have a sobering effect here. The theme appeared to change from “time is running out…” to “Habib will have the time he says he needs.” Begin told the Cabinet Sunday that Israel must avoid falling out with Washington over the Beirut crisis, although at the same time he stressed that Israel could not allow the present situation to go on indefinitely.

OTHER EXTERNAL DANGERS

Apart from the fear of a split with the U.S., Israeli policy makers must take account of other external dangers that could arise from an armed assault on west Beirut.

*The European Economic Community might well react by imposing economic sanctions on Israel as it did on Argentina over the Falklands war. In Israel’s case the effect would be devastating since Israel does so much of its trade with Europe.

*The peace with Egypt, strained by the war, would inevitably suffer. Some analysts here believe the Egyptians would recall their ambassador from Tel Aviv, and that could lead to a steep and rapid downhill trend in relations. Even now, all cultural ties between the two countries have been effectively frozen because of the war in Lebanon.

Sources close to the Primer Minister have sought to blunt the edge of the seemingly either or choice which the press and the public see as con- fronting him: to assault west Beirut or to do nothing.

These sources say that Begin in fact has a wide range of options before him: he can go for certain limited and selective military actions around Beirut that would not result in massive destruction but could still tighten the pressure on the PLO and perhaps persuade its leaders to leave the city without a bloodbath.

Some Israeli officials believe that this sort of limited military action could be undertaken parallel with the diplomatic negotiations and would help expedite a diplomatic solution.

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