JERUSALEM (Jul. 4)
Secretary of State George Shultz, apparently on orders from President Reagan, is returning to the Middle East. He is due here tomorrow night and will confer with Premier Menachem Begin and other senior Cabinet ministers on Thursday.
Shultz is on the final leg of a round-the-world trip that did not have the Middle East on its itinerary. He arrived in Saudi Arabia today and will visit Syria and Lebanon in addition to Israel.
The announcement that he would visit the region took government circles here by surprise. There was speculation over the weekend that it might signal a possible breakthrough with the Syrians who have so far adamantly refused to withdraw their forces from Lebanon.
It was also considered possible that Shultz’s visit may be connected with the current friction between Israel and Washington over the Administration’s reported suggestion that Israel provide a timetable for its complete withdrawal from Lebanon regardless of what Syria does at this juncture.
The reported call for such unilaterial action by Israel was angrily denounced by officials here last Friday. U.S. special envoy Philip Habib told reporters here after meeting with Begin that no such proposal exists. Israeli sources said however that Habib raised the idea in his conversation with Begin in terms of a tentative tactical suggestion but not a demand or proposal from the U.S. to Israel.
Israeli officials were anxious not to magnify the discord, especially in advance of Begin’s visit to Washington, scheduled for July 27. Meanwhile, government sources said after yesterday’s weekly Cabinet meeting that Israel was proceeding with consultations on the possible redeployment of the Israel Defense Force in Lebanon. Begin told the Cabinet there would be a ministerial meeting with senior army officers on that subject later in the week.
U.S. RESIGNED TO PARTIAL PULLBACK
Sources here maintained that U.S. opposition to a partial pullback by the IDF was not as forceful or unequivocal as had been depicted in the media here and in Washington. The sources indicated that the U.S. had in effect resigned itself to such an Israeli move and that “coordination” was in progress “not on whether to redeploy but how and to where.”
They dismissed reported U.S. objections to the proposed redeployment on grounds that it would amount to the de facto partition of Lebanon. The present situation is in effect de facto partition, the sources noted, stressing that it would continue as long as Syria refused to cooperate and pull out its forces within the terms of the withdrawal agreement between Israel and Lebanon signed last May 17.
The possibility of an Israeli pullback to shorter lines in Lebanon has been under discussion here for some time. It was heightened by the steady toll of casualties sustained by the IDF in Lebanon in recent months. The government sources noted that the incidence of attacks has declined of late as a result of undisclosed measures taken by the army and also “luck.” Therefore, pressure on the government to redeploy Israeli troops in Lebanon has subsided, allowing more time to consider such a move. Nevertheless, four separate attacks on IDF patrols in Lebanon were reported over the weekend. None how ever caused casualties.
Sources here predicted that Begin and his senior ministers would eventually decide on a phased pullback to the Awali river line which defines the 40 kilometer security zone in south Lebanon. The new line would enable the IDF to apply considerably more effective control over north-south traffic in Lebanon than it is able to do at present, the sources said. It would also relieve Israeli soldiers of the dangerous and unwanted job of “policing” the Shouf mountains where Christian militias and Druze villagers have been intermittently at war for months.
REAGAN SENT SHULTZ TO MIDEAST
As these matters were being pondered, preparations were underway for Shultz’s arrival. According to reports over the weekend, President Reagan told Shultz by telephone to Pakistan Saturday to return to the Middle East to try to break what the Secretary had called the “logjam” blocking the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Lebanon. Shultz was quoted by reporters, after speaking with the President, as saying he would not undertake any new “shuttle” diplomacy.
At yesterday’s Cabinet meeting, Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir denied that the U.S. had formally “proposed” an Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon or a withdrawal timetable, although he confirmed there had been certain “ideas” floated.
President Chaim Herzog said today that anybody who proposed a unilateral withdrawal of Israeli troops from Lebanon did not understand the nature of the Syrian dictatorship. Herzog told a group of visiting Congressmen from Louisiana that only an unequivocal, firm stand by the U.S. could persuade President Hafez Assad of Syria to agree to withdraw.