JERUSALEM (Sep. 25)
A flurry of diplomatic activity over south Lebanon has suddenly raised hopes here that Israel soon may be in a position to pull its forces out. Premier Shimon Peres has publicly predicted that the Israel Defense Force will leave Lebanon during the new Hebrew calender year, 5745, which begins tomorrow night.
The media is speaking of partial pullbacks, new deployments of United Nations troops and undisclosed deals with Syria. Such speculation is given substance by knowledge that the Labor-Likud unity government has given top priority — along with the economic crisis — to withdrawal of the IDF from Lebanon.
The new government also seems to have modified the position long held by its predecessor that any pullback of Israeli troops must be accompanied by the simultaneous withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon.
Israel has suffered heavy losses since it invaded Lebanon in June, 1982. This week alone, two soldiers were killed and 10 wounded in eight incidents. Since the war began, 597 Israelis were killed and nearly 4,000 were injured.
INDIRECT CONTACTS BETWEEN ISRAEL AND SYRIA
Indirect contacts between Israel and Syria apparently are underway, through the United States. Richard Murphy, the Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs, flew here from Damascus last night and confered in Tel Aviv this morning with Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin and acting Foreign Minister Moshe Arens. He is scheduled to meet with Peres tomorrow.
Murphy was sent to the Middle East to investigate the terrorist bombing of the U.S. Embassy annex in east Beirut last Thursday. According to the State Department, he is utilizing his visit to confer with regional leaders. He met with President Amin Gemayel of Lebanon and with Syrian President Hafez Assad before coming to Israel.
Rabin is reported to be organizing and leading Israel’s policymaking with respect to south Lebanon which involves both Syria and the future role of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). Rabin is known to favor a broader role for UNIFIL in terms of its geographical deployment and its operational responsibilities.
INSIST ON THE SLA REMAINING INTACT
The Defense Minister does not propose to rely exclusively on UNIFIL to protect Israel’s northern border from terrorist attacks or infiltration. He, and others in the government, insist that the Israel-backed South Lebanon Army (SLA) remain intact and in place, despite the acute embarrassment caused when SLA troops ran amok and massacred 13 civilians in a south Lebanese village last week.
Rabin hopes that the SLA can be deployed along a narrow border strip while UNIFIL expands its area of operations northward and eastward to fill the security gap left by a departing IDF. Officially, UNIFIL would be policing all of south Lebanon, up to the Israeli border, according to the original terms of its mandate laid down in 1978.
The Syrian side of the equation is necessarily concealed from public view, at least at this stage. Government circles here, and the Administration in Washington, were hardly pleased by Deputy Premier and Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s remark last week that Israel had asked the U.S. to mediate an agreement with Syria.
Nevertheless, Shamir’s various statements in New York, where he is attending the 39th session of the UN General Assembly, appeared to signify some modification of his earlier positions on south Lebanon. He seems, for example, to have abandoned his deep distrust of UNIFIL as an effective element in security arrangements for Israel.
Israeli analysts say Syria is willing to go along with strict security arrangements for Israel in south Lebanon if only to get the IDF out.
These analysts note that Damascus has never really opposed security arrangements in the south but objected vehemently to political ties between Jerusalem and Lebanon or any other benefits accruing to Israel from its war in Lebanon.
The Syrians can claim now that the IDF is pulling out of Lebanon without any such ties or benefits having been gained, the analysts said.