JERUSALEM (Aug. 16)
All remaining unresolved issues preventing a full Israeli approval of the proposed plan leading to the evacuation of the Palestine Liberation Organization from Beirut have been removed except for Israel’s demand that the PLO release immediately a captured Israeli pilot and the bodies of nine Israeli soldiers killed in fighting in Lebanon, political sources said here today.
Israel’s concessions on a number of points in the plan proposed by special U.S. envoy Philip Habib was reported yesterday at the conclusion of the weekly Cabinet meeting when Cabinet Secretary Dan Meridor said that there were “prospects” for an Israeli approval of the agreement and that Israeli officials had shown “flexibility” when meeting with Habib for two-hours prior to the Cabinet session.
Israel’s one final demand, which political sources said today was “an absolute must” before full approval, calls for the PLO to immediately release Aharon Achiaz, an Israeli pilot captured by the PLO and believed held in west Beirut, and for the PLO to release the bodies of nine Israeli soldiers killed in the Litani operation in Lebanon three years ago and in the current fighting.
There were indications from Beirut that the PLO would meet this demand and arrange for the transfer through Red Cross intermediaries. But sources here said that the agreement leading to the PLO withdrawal could fall or stand depending upon the PLO’s implementation of the release of the bodies and the one pilot.
ISSUE OF THE MULTINATIONAL FORCE
One issue that had prevented Israel’s agreement to the U.S. plan concerned the deployment of the multinational force which is to take up positions between the departing PLO and Israeli troops around the besieged Lebanese capital.
Israel reportedly agreed that the French forces, making up part of the multinational force should take up positions simultaneously with the departure of the PLO. Israel had insisted that the international force, which will include Italian, U.S. and French forces, enter Beirut only at the final stages of the evacuation.
Israel continues, however, to maintain that the countries participating in the force provide Israel with assurances that the multinational force will not be used as a shield for the PLO if the evacuation is interrupted for any reason. Deputy Foreign Minister Yehuda Ben-Meir told Israel Radio today that Israel insists that assurance will be provided by the three countries that if the PLO does renege on its commitment to depart from Beirut, the multinational force will stand aside and not act as a shield.
“This is a solid commitment by the U.S. and we will have to have it by other participating countries,” Ben-Meir said. He noted that the PLO had dropped its previous demands which included its request for a political office to remain in west Beirut, the incorporation of some contingents of the PLO as part of the Lebanese army, and an Israeli withdrawal prior to the evacuation of the PLO forces.
French Foreign Minister Claude Cheysson reportedly conveyed a commitment to the Israeli government that if the evacuation is disturbed or should cease at any point, the French forces will withdraw. U.S. and Italian officials have reportedly conveyed a similar understanding.
ACCORD ON LIMITED UN OBSERVER FORCE
The other concession Israel agreed to is the presence of a small United Nations observer force. There are currently some 20 such observers serving with the UN units staffing buffer zones. The United States favors at least a symbolic UN observer presence in the evacuation process, to show some linkage between the evacuation, the international force and the UN.
According to the statement released by the Cabinet following its session yesterday, Israel has insisted that “a check be made of the lists of terrorists to leave Beirut and Lebanon.” This was apparently an indication of a softening on the Israeli position that a full list be presented to Israel of the estimated 6,000 PLO fighters who are expected to evacuate Beirut. Israel claims that the total of evacuees is around 13,000. This figure would include, presumably, members of the Lebanese leftist groups and the Syrian occupation forces.
The evacuation is expected to begin at the end of this week or the early part of next week unless unexpected developments arise, in which case, sources here noted, the military option remained open to see that the PLO evacuation does take place.
REACTIONS IN ARAB CAPITALS
Meanwhile, in Beirut today, Lebanese Prime Minister Shafia al Wazzan said after meeting with Habib that differences on the evacuation plan had “narrowed until they have almost disappeared” and that he expected the PLO evacuation to begin this week.
In Cairo, Egyptian officials said the long-stalled talks on autonomy for the Palestinians on the West Bank and Gaza Strip would not be resumed until Israel has completed its withdrawal from Lebanon. The officials hinted that there would also have to be a change in Israel’s interpretation of the Camp David accords outlining the proposal for Palestinian self rule.
Syria meanwhile appeared to affirm that it will stay in Lebanon where its forces have been since 1976 under a mandate from the Arab League. “Syrian forces belong to the Lebanese legality. They are legally present in Lebanon and will defend their presence against anti-Israeli threats,” state-run Damascus Radio said today There was no mention of Beirut, indicating that Syrian forces might be ready to quit Beirut while not pulling out entirely from Lebanon.