JERUSALEM (Oct. 28)
The Cabinet today gave its unanimous approval to Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s plans for negotiating a “political-military” solution leading to Israel’s withdrawal from south Lebanon. The session was declared a meeting of the Ministerial Defense Committee, meaning that its deliberations could not be made public, and thus details were scarce.
Rabin himself was plainly pleased after the meeting, although he had already won the endorsement he needs at a meeting Thursday of the “inner Cabinet” which also approved his policy guidelines, with only Trade and Industry Minister Ariel Sharon dissenting.
The Defense Minister outlined Israel’s terms for a “political-military” solution in south Lebanon in an interview with Yediot Achronot this weekend. Rabin spoke of a Syrian commitment, to be given through the United States, to refrain from moving its army southwards in the wake of an Israel Defense Force withdrawal. The Syrians would also be committed to preventing PLO units from infiltrating from the area they hold southwards towards the Israeli border.
OUTLINES ROLE OF UNIFIL
Robin envisaged a narrow zone abutting on the border to be held by the South Lebanon Army (SLA). But in this zone, too, as well as in the broader swathe of territory to the north of it, there would be a United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) presence, according to Rabin’s plans.
This was the first time he had confirmed publicly that he was prepared to enable UNIFIL to deploy right up to Israel’s borderline — although he referred to this deployment as a “symbolic presence” and stressed that he wanted the SLA to remain intact and to remain in effective control of the border area.
In the more northerly zone, Rabin said he wanted UNIFIL — to be duly reinforced from its present complement of less than 6,000 — to deploy northwards up to the Awali River line which is now held by the IDF, and eastwards up to the Syrian-Lebanese borderline in the Bekaa valley where IDF units are now eyeball to eyeball with the Syrian army.
Rabin also envisaged the indirect Syrian commitments being given in indirect talks to be conducted via the United States. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Murphy is scheduled to return to the Mideast this week for a second round of “exploratory” meetings in Jerusalem, Beirut and Damascus, following up on his talks two weeks ago, and Rabin predicted a more intensified and higher-profile American diplomatic effort once the Presidential election was over.
SEES ‘UN FRAMEWORK’ FOR MILITARY TALKS
In addition, Rabin has sought direct talks, on the military level, between Israel and Lebanon. He said these talks could be held “under a UN framework.” A senior UN political aide, Jean-Claude Aimee, has been in the area for the past two weeks seeking to arrange a meeting of the IDF and Lebanese army officers at UNIFIL headquarters in Naqura, just narth of Rosh Hanikra.
Rabin’s aides stress that Israel will on no account accept Lebanon’s notion that such talks be considered sessions of the long-defunct Mixed Armistice Commission, set up under the 1949 Israel-Lebanon armistice agreement. Israel had held ever since the Six-Day War that the armistice agreement and the regime it created are dead and buried. The present Israeli government adheres to that position. The Defense Minister made it clear both in the weekend interview and in the “inner Cabinet” session last Thursday that he is prepared for talks arranged by UNIFIL (although not chaired by a UNIFIL officer).
This aroused the ire of Sharon who opposes any such involvement — either in setting up talks or in expanding the projected UNIFIL role in policing security in south Lebanon. Sharon said last week that he ruled out any cooperation with UNIFIL because that agency “cooperated with terrorist organizations, openly and secretly, during the years it was in Lebanon.”
Rabin expressed his belief that UNIFIL, once it is reinforced, “can be a political barrier to prevent the Syrians from advancing southwards after Israel withdraws and it can also be an effective military barrier against any large-scale infiltration southwards by terrorists. As for small-scale infiltration–even the IDF is unable to prevent that entirely.”
GOING AHEAD WITH CONTINGENCY PLANS
While Rabin is not prepared to discuss in public the possibility that the current diplomatic efforts to obtain a “political-military” solution might fail, within the Israeli defense establishment work is going ahead on contingency planning for a unilateral pullback from part of south Lebanon. This would presumably involve an evacuation of the heavily populated western sector and, at the same time, a digging-in on the eastern front.
Rabin, in his interview, said he was “cautiously hopeful” that Syria would eventually agree to a comprehensive withdrawal-and-security arrangement. His aides say he will not, however, allow the talks to drag on indefinitely. His time-frame, they say, is in the order of three or four months, after which he will examine the unilateral options.