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Hopes and Uncertainty Mark Israel-lebanon Talks Beginning Today

An Israeli negotiating team, supervised by a committee of senior Cabinet ministers, will sit down with Lebanese representatives at a hotel in Khalde, just south of Beirut tomorrow to begin discussions the Israelis hope will lead to normalization of relations between the two countries, and pave the way for an eventual peace treaty.

But there is uncertainty here as to just how far the Lebanese are prepared to go at this time toward establishing normal relations with Israel. Premier Menachem Begin, appearing before the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Security Committee today, conceded that the Lebanese had declined to sign the document Defense Minister Ariel Sharon brought back from Beirut 11 days ago and hailed as a “breakthrough” and an “agreed framework” for talks.

But it will serve as the basis for the negotiations, Begin said, explaining that the Lebanese had agreed to this orally.

The document deals with the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Lebanon and security arrangements, some affecting all of Lebanon and others intended specifically for the 40-45 kilometer zone north of the Israeli border. Normalization would include the passage of goods and people across the border and the establishment of an Israeli diplomatic office in Beirut “until the conclusion of a peace treaty.” Apparently there is no provision for similar Lebanese representation in Israel.

LONG, TOUGH NEGOTIATIONS EXPECTED NOW

The document is being referred to here now as an “agenda” rather than an “agreed framework.” All Israeli sources agree that the negotiations will be long and arduous and probably go through several crises before a formal agreement is achieved between the two governments.

The uncertainty hovering over the scope and pace of the talks due to begin tomorrow stems from differences within the Lebanese government. Israeli sources insist that President Amin Gemayel, in effect, endorsed the document Sharon obtained after high level meetings with undisclosed Lebanese officials in Beirut. The Israeli Cabinet gave its formal approval. But Gemayel did not. Israeli sources admit that Lebanon’s Moslem Premier, Shafik Wazan and other key non-Christian leaders in Beirut are not reconciled to its contents, especially the references to normalization.

Sharon and some Israeli officials close to him have blamed the United States for discouraging the Lebanese from signing the document. But that view is not shared by other government leaders. Deputy Premier Simcha Ehrlich has publicly chastized Sharon for making “warlike pronouncements” against the U.S.

Labor Party leader Shimon Peres sharply criticized Sharon’s handling of his talks with Lebanese officials. He observed, at today’s meeting of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs Committee that the Defense Minister has “a surfeit of imagination and a surfeit of inaccuracies.” Begin strongly defended Sharon’s role.

Israeli officials said Friday and repeated yesterday that the Lebanese government has agreed to make a formal announcement that the negotiations would open Tuesday at Khalde. But no such announcement has been made up to now. The Lebanese radio reported unofficially however that the Beirut government has indeed agreed to the time and place of the talks. After the opening session in Khalde, they will move Thursday to Kiryat Shmona, an Israeli town close to the Lebanese border.

It was announced here today that the Israeli delegation will be headed by David Kimche, Director General of the Foreign Ministry and will consist of three civilian diplomats and three military men. The Lebanese team is expected to be headed by Antoine Fatale, a senior diplomatic aide to President Gemayel.

The Israeli delegation will act under the supervision of a special ministerial committee on the policy-making level consisting of Begin, Deputy Premier Ehrlich, Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir, Sharon and Interior Minister Yosef Burg.

Burg and Ehrlich were added to the supervisory body at yesterday’s Cabinet session. Some observers saw this as a success for the Cabinet moderates to place some restraints on Sharon and make the ministerial group representative of the coalition as a whole. Ehrlich is a leader of Likud’s Liberal Party wing and Burg represents the National Religious Party.

The assignment of Kimche to head the actual negotiating body was seen as a victory for Shamir over Sharon who had wanted someone else. Kimche has played a key role in contacts with the Lebanese over many months and his appointment was backed by Begin.

Begin told the Knesset committee today that Israel’s campaign in Lebanon resulted in a number of important achievements. He listed them as the discomfiture of the Palestine Liberation Organization; peace for Galilee; the strengthening of Israel’s deterrent force, especially vis-a-vis Syria; and the document Sharon negotiated with the Lebanese.

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