JERUSALEM (Mar. 27)
The 12 weeks of talks between Lebanon and Israel appeared to be heading toward a conclusion today but it remained uncertain whether or not they will culminate successfully in an agreement.
Signs of growing frustration and impatience were evident in both Jerusalem and Washington over the weekend as the Israeli, Lebanese and American delegations held their 24th meeting at Netanya Friday and U.S. special envoy Philip Habib continued his diplomatic shuttles between Jerusalem and Beirut.
The Cabinet, at its regular weekly session today, discussed Habib’s report of his two days of talks in Beirut with President Amin Gemayel and Lebanese Foreign Minister Elie Salem. Cabinet spokesman Dan Meridor told reporters afterwards that “Much is being achieved … There are problems to be solved, but we hope it won’t be long.” Government sources said there had been progress on all issues.
ATMOSPHERE LESS OPTIMISTIC
But the atmosphere was less optimistic after Habib met with Israeli Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir this evening and flew back to Beirut, apparently to convey the latest Israeli position to the Lebanese government.
Israeli sources said Shamir had been “very firm” on Israel’s insistance that Maj. Saad Haddad and his Christian militia, armed and financed by Israel, retain control of security in south Lebanon after Israeli forces withdraw.
The Lebanese government refuses to assign such a role to Haddad and its position has been backed by the U.S. Meridor said after today’s Cabinet meeting that Haddad’s future role was not the major obstacle to an agreement, as some sources had said last week. “It is not a personal problem of Maj. Haddad. It is a very basic security question for Israel,” he said.
DIFFERENCES BETWEEN ISRAEL AND LEBANON
Israel has reportedly rejected a Lebanese offer to incorporate Haddad’s militia into the Lebanese army but send Haddad himself on a diplomatic assignment abroad or allow him “honorable retirement.” Haddad has been Israel’s principal ally in Lebanon but circles in Beirut regard him as a deserter and renegade who is “too close to Israel.”
The Lebanese, for their part, adamantly refuse Israel’s demand to maintain surveillance outposts manned by its own troops in south Lebanon for an indefinite period after the bulk of Israel’s forces withdraw. Beirut’s position on this too is supported by the U.S. on grounds that it would compromise Lebanon’s sovereignty.
Israel reportedly was willing to forego the surveillance outposts if Haddad was allowed to remain in command of his militia in the south, whether or not it is incorporated into the Lebanese army. The impasse that has developed revived proposals in the Cabinet today for a unilateral withdrawal of Israeli forces to the Awali River just north of Sidon.
Some hardliners, including Minister of Science Yuval Ne’eman of the ultra-nationalist Tehiya Party, advocated such a move because “no end to the negotiations are in sight.”
The official government position is against that course of action. Government spokesmen say there is still a chance that agreement will be reached and an Israeli withdrawal would be conducted in the context of a staged pull-back of all foreign forces. Shamir said in a television interview tonight that both Lebanon and the U.S. have assured Israel that the Syrians and the Palestine Liberation Organization were prepared to withdraw simultaneously with the Israel army.
FRUSTRATION AND IMPATIENCE
But even the official position reflects growing frustration and impatience within policy-making circles here. Government sources said today that the three months of tripartite negotiations was clearly “exhausting itself” and must end soon, one way or another. If the conclusion is unsatisfactory, Israel would have to weigh the situation and consider its “alternatives,” the sources said.
This seemed to observers to be an oblique reference to the possibility of a unilateral withdrawal to lines below which Haddad’s 2,000 militiamen, aided by the Israel army, are already strongly deployed.
‘NO MAGIC DATE’
The mood in Washington also reflected impatience. State Department spokesman John Hughes conceded Friday that the Administration was “frustrated” that no agreement had been reached on the withdrawal of foreign forces from Lebanon more than a week after Secretary of State George Shultz held lengthy talks with Shamir on that subject.
Hughes denied that the U.S. has set a deadline for the conclusion of the talks. “In our minds we don’t have a magic date,” he said, noting that the Lebanese government has talked of April 2 as a target date for an agreement.
Hughes said that while the U.S. is “frustrated it has taken so long,” it will “continue to work” on an agreement “hour by hour, day by day … (the U.S.) wants it done as soon as possible.”
Reports from Beirut over the weekend quoted Foreign Minister Salem as saying “we have given everything Lebanon can give” with respect to Israel’s security demands, “we cannot give any more on the security arrangements without prejudicing Lebanon’s sovereignty.” Salem was reported to have said that he still thought an agreement was possible but if none was forthcoming within two weeks, Lebanon would have to reassess its approach to negotiations.
Premier Menachem Begin referred today to the difficulties Israel was having to ensure that the aims of its war in Lebanon were realized. Speaking at a ceremony in the courtyard of the Prime Ministers Office where he awarded “Peace for Galilee Campaign” ribbons to Chief of Staff Rafael Eitan and other senior officers. Begin pledged that Israel would stand firmly by the terms it has presented to Lebanon to ensure that the PLO never returns to that country to launch attacks on Israel.
Begin spoke after the Cabinet meeting. According to reports leaked from the Cabinet chamber, today’s session was stormy. Former Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, now a Minister-Without-Portfolio, was said to have let loose, for the first time, a tirade of criticism against his successor, Defense Minister Moshe Arens.
Sharon charged that Israel’s negotiators were surrendering on key issues. “This way we will achieve nothing,” he warned. Deputy Premier David Levy and Education Minister Zevulun Hammer reportedly led a spirited defense of Arens. Hammer, a leader of the National Religious Party, said the government is duty-bound to bring an end to the Lebanon episode and the concessions Israel has offered during the talks are fully acceptable to him.
HADDAD ACCUSES THE U.S.
Meanwhile, Haddad, appearing on an Israel Radio interview today, accused the U.S. of pressuring the Lebanese government to oust him. “What they (the Beirut government) are asking now is good for America — it is an American request they are now asking, not a Lebanese request knowing that the main danger existing against Lebanon is the Syrian and PLO presence in the north and in the Bekaa Valley. But nobody is talking about that,” he complained.
Haddad said, however, that he was prepared to step down if it could be proven that he is the sole remaining obstacle to an agreement. But he claimed that was a “frivolous and contentious nation.