Israel Assessing Departure of Families of Soviet Diplomatic Personnel from Beirut

The sudden, unexplained departure from Beirut of the families of Soviet diplomatic personnel has disturbed Israelis who recall that the last large scale evacuation of Russians from Arab capitals occurred in October, 1973. shortly before the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War.

Soviet sources said initially that the families were evacuated because of the renewed fighting between Christian and Moslem factions in and around Beirut. A Soviet spokesman in Amman, Jordan, said later that the Russian families were simply going on their summer vacations. But Israel reportedly is keeping close contact with American officials at various levels to assess the situation. (Related story from Washington.)

There seems to be agreement here that the Soviets make no move without specific motive. According to some Israeli sources they are trying to indicate that no agreements can be signed in the Middle East without bringing Moscow into the picture. According to Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir, the Soviet Union is applying pressure on Lebanon not to sign the withdrawal agreement it reached with Israel.

Israeli circles are trying to play down any connection between the renewed sectarian fighting in Lebanon this week and Israel’s acceptance of the agreement worked out by Secretary of State George Shultz. But some observers are convinced that the fighting and the departure of Russian families are intended to convince the Beirut government not to sign the accord.

ROLE OF THE SOVIET UNION

Israeli experts on Soviet affairs agree that the USSR wants to nullify the agreement, which was the result of American diplomacy, and secure a unilateral, unconditional withdrawal of Israeli forces from Lebanon. But these experts also share the view that the Soviets will not pursue their objectives to the point of pushing Syria into a military confrontation with Israel.

Prof. Galia Golan, a Soviet affairs expert at the Hebrew University, suggested that Moscow has nothing to gain from a war between Syria and Israel, “given the proximity of Israeli forces to Damascus.” According to Golan the presence of Soviet advisors and U.S. marines within a small geographical area is considered dangerous by the Kremlin.

In Golan’s opinion, the Russians are behind Syrias refusal to accept the accord between Lebanon and Israel and pull its own forces out of Lebanon. She believes the Soviets are interfering in order to gain some sort of compromise or concession from the U.S. such as agreement to give Moscow a role in the overall Middle East peace process.

Israelis still hope the U.S. can convince Syria to join the agreement. If it does, the accord could be signed by next week, they say. But the question persists of what Israel will do if the Syrians refuse to cooperate and the agreement is not implemented. The only proposal raised so far is a unilateral Israeli withdrawal to the Awali river line, the boundary of the 28-mile security zone north of Israel’s border.

Defense Minister Moshe Arens told the Likud Knesset faction last night that such a move would have only short-term advantages. If Israel carries out a partial withdrawal and the Syrians and Palestine Liberation Organization keep their forces in place, he said, the PLO would take over the territory evacuated by Israel and the new line would become a front for a war of attrition.

NEXT STORY