JERUSALEM (Dec. 19)
The Cabinet announced today that Israel has dropped its demand that negotiations with Lebanon be held alternately in Jerusalem and Beirut and stated that “the venue of the negotiations will be determined in contacts between the governments of Israel and Lebanon.”
The announcement appeared to remove a major obstacle to the start of formal negotiations between the two countries for the withdrawal of foreign forces from Lebanon and security arrangements. It followed a statement by Defense Minister Ariel Sharon that he had personally achieved a “breakthrough” on negotiations in talks with undisclosed Lebanese leaders in Beirut last Thursday.
It also followed comments to the media by President Reagan in Washington over the weekend characterizing the armies of Israel, Syria and the Palestine Liberation Organization forces still in Lebanon as “armies of occupation,” a description which he seemed to apply most emphatically to the Israeli army. In addition, U.S. special envoy Philip Habib delivered a letter from Reagan to Premier Menachem Begin last Thursday in which the President forcefully urged Israel to pull out of Lebanon without further delay.
The contents of Reagan’s letter were not disclosed, but informed sources said it put the onus primarily on Israel for the negotiations impasse of the past few weeks.
OPTIMISM IN THE CABINET
Nevertheless, there was optimism in the Cabinet today that negotiations could begin shortly. Habib and U.S. special envoy Morris Draper, just back from Beirut, confirmed to Israeli officials that there seemed to have been a major advance and indicated that formal talks between Israel and Lebanon might begin in a few days and could be concluded successfully within a short time.
After meeting with Habib and Draper this morning, Begin convened his Cabinet to announce the government’s change of position on the issue of venue. While some ministers wanted to blur what they saw as a backing down by Israel, Begin insisted, according to Cabinet sources, that the announcement le made straightforwardly and clear.
He insisted that the national interest required that Israel make the concession so that agreements already concluded informally with Lebanon can be formalized without delay.
Israeli sources did not reveal the identities of the “very senior Lebanese figures” with whom Sharon has been in contact for several weeks. They acknowledged that there are counter-pressures at work within the complex and less than stable government in Beirut. But they seemed confident that the principles secured by Sharon and endorsed by the Cabinet today could be incorporated into a formal accord between Israel and Lebanon.
A high government source told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency today that those principles would “largely answer our requirements.” The source said they provide for “satisfactory security arrangements” in south Lebanon, for “normalization” of relations between the two countries and for an “official end to belligerency.”
Nevertheless, some key sources took issue with claims by Sharon and his associates that the major “breakthrough” was achieved by the Defense Minister in a solo effort without the help of the Americans. According to Sharon’s circles, Habib and Draper were “surprised” by Sharon’s success.
The sources emphasized today that the U.S. role would be vital, not only in mediation between Israel, Syria and the PLO for total withdrawal but also in the protracted formal negotiations between Israel and Lebanon. The sources said several Cabinet ministers had expressed their appreciation of the American efforts.
They stressed that Israel was not being asked by the U.S. or by Lebanon to pull back its forces unilaterally. They said simultaneous withdrawal by Israel and the Syrians was under consideration, probably in stages, to begin after the PLO pulls out its estimated 6-7,000 armed men.
Reogan’s comments in Washington indicated that he was fast losing patience over the lack of movement in Lebanon. He told the Washington Post in an interview published Friday that “the time has come now for the foreign forces that are there — Syria, Israel and the remnant of the PLO” to pull out of Lebanon. “For these countries to delay in getting out now places them in the position of being occupying armies,” he said, according to the Post.
He added, the Post reported, that for Israel to be in Lebanon on invitation or when it was being attacked from across the Lebanese border was one thing, but for them to be there now was something else. “The Lebanese government has enough confidence in itself that it has asked them (the Israelis) to leave and to not leave is, as I say, to make themselves on occupying force,” the President was quoted by the Post.
DEFINES ‘ARMIES OF OCCUPATION’
He sounded the same theme in comments to radio reporters yesterday. “The main thing right now that we have Ambassador Habib and Draper working on in the Middle East is to get what now constitutes armies of occupation — the PLO, the Syrians and the Israelis– out of Lebanon and let the Gemayel government have the sovereignty of their own country,” Reagan said.
He added; “I call them armies of occupation because there was a time when Lebanon with all its troubles and divisions did have to welcome them in an effort to create order. But now that government has enough confidence to ask them to leave. For them to continue to stay against the will of Lebanon makes them technically armies of occupation.”
The President also said the withdrawal of the foreign forces from Lebanon was a first step in resolving the Middle East conflict. “Then we move on to the peace process in solving the Palestinian problem, Israel and guaranteeing the security of Israel’s borders,” Reagan said.