JERUSALEM (Feb. 12)
Israel affirmed today that it would retain in south Lebanon whatever forces it considered necessary to ensure the security of its northern borders in the event the Lebanese government scraps its May 17, 1983 withdrawal and security agreement with Israel.
That decision emerged from a seven hour Cabinet meeting which, in effect, endorsed Premier Yitzhak Shamir’s stem warning to Lebanon yesterday not to yield to Syrian pressure to abrogate the May 17 accord. Cabinet secretary Dan Meridor insisted after the meeting that Israel is not prepared to accept an abrogation and would take all necessary measures to protect its northern borders.
Shamir, in a radio interview, made it clear that if the May 17 agreement is renounced, Israel will “consider itself released from any commitment it undertook within the framework of that agreement” and “will ensure the security of its northern border with or without the agreement.”
Shamir also warned “those in the United States” who may feel that Lebanese President Amin Gemaye has no choice but to abrogate the agreement in order to appease Syrian aggression.
“I think this would go against the line which President Reagan upholds and which he advocates. If any one in the United States supports cancellation of the agreement, this should be seen as weakness or error, Shamir said. “It is well known that one cannot weaken aggression by succumbing to it,” he observed.
CRITICAL OF WITHDRAWAL OF MARINES
Shamir also offered the first official comment by an Israeli leader on Reagan’s decision last Tuesday to remove the marines from Beirut airport to ships of the U.S. Sixth Fleet off the Lebanese coast. He said that while he did not want to criticze the decision, the withdrawal seems hasty and comes in response to pressure of public opinion. He added, however, that the marines had not played a meaningful military role in Beirut.
Referring to the May 17 pact, which has never been ratified by the Lebanese government, Shamir contended that on balance Israel had made more concessions than the Lebanese during the lengthy and difficult negotiation process. He noted pointedly that Israel had given due consideration to Lebanon’s sovereignty and warned that “If Lebanon (now) foregoes the agreement, it will be a foregoing of sovereignty on Lebanon’s part. “
The May 17 agreement provided for the eventual withdrawal of the Israel Defense Force from all of Lebanon in the context of security arrangements in south Lebanon. The intention was that the Lebanese army and local “territorial forces” in the south, notably the militia of the late Col. Saad Haddad, would be responsible for security along Israel’s northern border.
The IDF, however, would have the right to participate with the local forces in patrol operations and the Israel Air Force would have the right of over flights over Lebanese territory. Syria has objected vehemently to the two latter provisions.
A secret annex to the May 17 agreement made Israel’s total withdrawal from Lebanon contingent on the simultaneous total withdrawal of Syrian forces from that country.
LITTLE HOPE OF IMPLEMENTING MAY 17 ACCORD
There is little realistic hope here, however, that under the present circumstances the provisions of the May 17 agreement can be implemented. But government policymakers believe that the existence of the agreement, whether carried out or not, is of political and historical significance.
They contend that if Lebanon succumbs to pressure from Damascus and cancels the accord, it would be a step backward in the broader process of convincing Arab states to come to terms with the legitimacy and existence of Israel.
Shamir stressed that Israel was prepared to recognize Lebanon’s sovereignty right up to the international boundary with Israel and asked for only the minimum security arrangements for itself. If Lebanon refuses to participate in the security arrangements, Israel will have to undertake them unilaterally, he said.
PRESSURE TO PULL BACK IDF
Meanwhile, there is growing pressure in government circles as well as the opposition for further IDF pull-backs in south Lebanon in the wake of the American withdrawal from Beirut. Advocates of a pullback argue that it may not have been possible while the Americans maintained their military presence on the ground in Beirut, but with the marines moving out there can be no objections from Washington to prevent the IDF from redeploying closer to the Israel border.
The Israelis would like to see their forces leave the large, heavily populated Lebanese coastal towns such as Sidon and Tyre where the risk of casualties to the IDF is greatest. Discussions of the feasibility of such a redeployment are believed to be underway in various policymaking forums.
The pullback proposal won the support of former Chief of Staff Gen. Rafael Eitan who was the chief architect of the Lebanon war. He said in a radio interview yesterday that the Lebanese army clearly is not capable of taking up positions in the south. The IDF, he said, should be redeployed along the Zaharani River which is south of its present line on the Awali River. According to Eitan, this would be a long-term redeployment protecting Israel’s northern border.
Defense Minister Moshe Arens offered a similar assessment in a television interview over the weekend. “Unfortunately … (it is) unlikely that the Lebanese army will be able to undertake security in the south,” he said, and Israel therefore will have to remain there to work out satisfactory security arrangements.
Arens observed that there was some common interest between Israel and the Shiites who comprise the largest single population group in south Lebanon since both regard the Palestine Liberation Organization as their enemy. Israel has been trying to draw the local Shiites into a defense and security arrangement backed by the IDF with the aim of preventing the return of the PLO to the region.
Shamir expressed confidence that Katyusha rockets would not fall on Israeli towns in upper Galilee although three of them exploded in and around Metuliah last week. An odd one or two rockets are impossible to prevent, Shamir conceded.
PLO TARGETS BOMBED
In retaliation for the attack, the eighth of its kind since Israel invaded Lebanon 20 months ago, the Air Force carried out a 20-minute bombing raid Friday on what were described as PLO targets in the area of Behamdoun on the Beirut-Damascus highway. Some anti-aircraft fire was encountered. But all planes returned safely to their bases and the pilots reported accurate hits on their targets, a military spokesman said.
He said the targets included buildings serving as PLO bases and gun sites near the Behamdoun stadium In addition to the air strike, an armored IDF patrol crossed the Awali River Friday and reconnoitered as far north as Damour, near the outskirts of Beirut. A military spokesman said the patrols were a regular feature of IDF preventive defense operations into territory it had evacuated months ago.
CONDUCT OF WAR IN LEBANON CRITICIZED
Meanwhile, two Cabinet ministers sharply criticized the conduct of the war in Lebanon. Communications Minister Mordecai Zipori told a meeting in Jerusalem Thursday that “several mistakes were mode … in the assessment (of the situation) in Lebanon and we are now suffering the consequences, to put it mildly.” He declined to go into the reasons for the mistakes.
Minister of Trade and Industry Gideon Patt said “Maybe we put our money on the wrong horses, ” a possible allusion to the Christian Phalangists in Lebanon who had a close alliance with Israel but took little or no part in the fighting in the summer of 1982.