Reagan Refuses to Be Drawn into a Confrontation with Israel

President Reagan last night again refused to be drawn into a condemnation of Israel this time for its bombardment of west Beirut in the last several days.

“There’s nothing we would like to see more than to see an end to the bloodshed and the shelling,” Reagan said in his nationally televised press conference fram the White House. But he reminded a questioner who asked about “the day after day” bombing and shelling by the Israelis that “it’s also been two-way. The PLO has been, and in some instances has been the first, to break the cease-fire.”

Reagan reiterated the U.S. goals in Lebanon as “the exodus of the armed PLO out of Beirut and out of Lebanon … We want the central government of Lebanon to once again, after several years of almost dissolution to once again be the authority with a military force, not several militias belonging to the various factions in Lebanon and then we want the foreign forces–Israeli and Syrian–out of Lebanon.”

The President praised his special envoy Philip Habib for doing a “magnificent job” in trying to accomplish these goals but said he could not give specific details because the negotiations are “sensitive.” Reagan said he would also not say “who might be providing the stumbling blocks” toward achieving these goals.

But he noted another cease-fire has gone into effect and stressed that “there are no deadlines that have been set of any kind.” A report that Habib promised Israeli Premier Menachem Begin to provide him by Friday with assurances from the PLO that it will leave Lebanon had been taken by some here as an Israeli deadline for an end to negotiations.

Reagan stressed that he remains “optimistic” that negotiations will prove to be successful. “Unless and until Ambassador Habib would tell me that there’s nothing more to be negotiated and they won’t solve it, I’m going to continue to be optimistic,” the President said.

BASIS FOR TALKING TO THE PLO

Reagan repeated the U.S. position on the PLO. “I think it would be a step forward in progress if the PLO would change the position if has had …” he said. “And what that would require is agreeing to abide by UN Resolutions 242 and 338, agreeing that Israel is a nation and does have a right to exist. Then I would feel that the United States could enter into discussions with the PLO.”

But Reagan emphasized he could not speak for Israel as to whether they would also accept this change from the PLO. It is “up to them and we could not speak for them,” he said. Reagan said the U.S. is acting as an “intermediary offering our services to try and help bring about peace in the Middle East.”

Asked if the U.S. would support the Palestinian state, the President said that that “is up to the negotiators. We wouldn’t impose anything on them, but Egypt and Israel–under the Camp David agreement–they are supposed to enter into now an area of talking of autonomy for the Palestinians. And that again is something that has been delayed because of this tragedy in Lebanon. But I think that is up to them, as to how that autonomy develops and what they see as a proper solution to the Palestinian problem.”

The President also warned Congressional delegations against going to Lebanon now as did a six member House group last weekend. “It is the right of Congressmen to go there if they so choose,” he noted. “I don’t happen to believe that right now it is a good time to do that or a good idea.”

While not directly saying that the Congressmen and Rep. Peter McCloskey (R. Calif.) were “manipulated” by PLO chief Yasir Arafat, as a reporter at the news conference suggested, Reagan said, “I believe that the Congressmen themselves and Representative McCloskey himself has said that he now believes that the paper that was signed did not amount to anything.”

McCloskey has claimed Arafat signed a statement saying he accepted all UN resolutions pertaining to the Palestinian question, which mean he accepted Resolutions 242 and 338 and thus Israel’s right to exist. The PLO has since repudiated this interpretation.

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