JERUSALEM (Jul. 20)
Premier Menachem Begin’s cancellation of his visit to Washington yesterday, a week before it was to begin, has raised a storm of speculation and concern over the state of the Prime Minister’s physical and emotional health, his political plans and the possibility that he might relinquish his office soon.
In his brief telephone conversation with President Reagan yesterday informing him that he would not be keeping their July 27th appointment at the White House, Begin cited “personal reasons,” The President did not ask him to elucidate and Begin’s closest aides refused to provide any explanation, though they vehemently denied that the Premier’s physical condition was a factor.
Political pundits suggested that Begin wanted to avoid a confrontation with Reagan over plans to redeploy the Israel Defense Force in Lebanon to shorter, more defensible lines, a move Washington is known to oppose and about which Lebanese President Amin Gemayel has expressed serious misgivings.
That issue was virtually certain to have figured in the Begin-Reagan talks. Significantly, within hours after cancelling his visit to Washington, Begin ordered a secret session of the Ministerial Defense Committee which today unanimously approved a redeployment plan, although no details were announced.
PROBLEMS BURDENING THE PREMIER
Begin, who will be 70 next weekend, has had medical problems for years, including a heart attack shortly before he was first elected to office in 1977, and other ailments. He was badly shaken by the long illness and death of his wife, Aliza, last November which left him in a deep depression which, his close associates say, has still not lifted.
There are other severe problems burdening the Prime Minister. The war in Lebanon which began in June, 1982, with overwhelming Israeli victories over the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Soviet-armed Syrians, held out high hopes that the Begin government’s war aims would be achieved: that the PLO would be erradicated as a military and political force, and that Lebanon, under a friendly Christian government, would become the second Arab state to sign a peace treaty with Israel.
But none of this has materialized. The PLO, though in internal disarray, remains capable of terrorists activity, now apparently under Syrian control. Syria, its war losses fully replenished by the Soviet Union, adamantly refuses to pull its forces out of Lebanon.
It is thus able to block implementation of the Israel-Lebanon withdrawal agreement signed May 17 after four months of exhausting negotiations, with the United States acting as mediator. The agreement itself falls far short of the peace treaty Israel had expected.
THE MOST SERIOUS PROBLEM
Most serious, from the standpoint of Israelis, the IDF, more than a year after the war began, remains in occupation of large areas of Lebanon, forced to perform arduous, dangerous and unwanted policing duties to maintain its own security and to try to keep peace between incessently warring Christian, Moslem and Druze factions obviously beyond the control of the Beirut government. As a result, the IDF is suffering casualties.
The death toll since the invasion of Lebanon began 13 months ago stands at over 500 and more than 2,000 Israeli soldiers have been wounded. According to Begin’s intimates, each IDF death causes him visible physical pain. He is deeply perturbed by his personal responsibility and by his personal need to bring the Lebanese episode to a speedy and secure conclusion.
CHANGES IN BEGIN’S PERSONAL STYLE
All of this helps explain his doleful mood, his seeming lethargy and self-imposed near-seclusion. The changes in Begin’s personal style have been evident to the public for some time and widely reported by the media. Although Begin has had periods of depression before, he always bounced back to confound political opponents all too ready to write him off.
But his present slough of despondency is the deepest and longest. He has limited his public appearances to the bare minimum in recent months. When he does deliver a brief speech or an address to the Knesset, the old fire and fight is missing. He has flatly refused interviews even to the most eminent foreign journalists. He was never generous with interviews to the Israeli press which he considers endemically hostile to him and his policies.
SUPPORTERS WORRIED, PUBLIC PERPLEXED
The Premier’s failure to go on television last night to explain his decision to cancel his Washington trip has worried his supporters and perplexed the Israeli public. The opposition Labor Party is still wary of raising the issue of Begin’s health — it has backfired on them before given the Premier’s still enormous popularity with wide sections of the electorate.
But Labor leaders believe there is no altemative this time. Labor Party chairman Shimon Peres, brushing aside the official explanations of Begin’s decision not to go to Washington, declared yesterday that it “raises serious questions about his (ability to) function.”
Begin may still pull out of his despondent mood. He and his senior ministers hope that the partial pullback of Israeli forces in Lebanon will reduce casualties and costs and will ease the burden of prolonged service on army reservists. If this is achieved, it would certainly improve the government’s standing at home and might give Begin the needed lift to recapture his lost energy and joy in political combat.
But much can go wrong. There is no guarantee that the redeployment will substantially reduce IDF casualties. Most of the recent casualties in Lebanon have been the result of terrorist ambushes and hit-and-run attacks within the designated security zone of south Lebanon to which the Israeli troops will withdraw.
The IDF, moreover, will still control a population of some 600,000 Lebanese and Palestinians if the city of Sidon is included within its lines. That matter apparently has not been decided.
LEBANON WRACKED BY INTERNECINE WARFARE
Internecine warfare is breaking out all over Lebanon in anticipation of an Israeli pull-back. There is no way of predicting whether or not the fighting will escalate after Israeli troops leave the Shouf mountains and the Beirut area. It is not clear either at this stage whether the multinational force, now in a peacekeeping role in and around Beirut, will be redeployed to cover the areas evacuated by the IDF.