Israeli-lebanese Talks Begin

Israeli and Lebanese military delegations met at the Lebanese border village of Nakura Thursday to begin negotiations aimed at the withdrawal of the Israel Defense Force from south Lebanon.

The talks are being held at the headquarters of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) and are officially under UN auspices. UNIFIL commander, Gen. William Callaghan of Ireland, is attending, but the Israelis and Lebanese disagree sharply on the nature of the UN role.

Brig. Gen. Amos Gilboah who heads the Israeli delegation, stated his government’s position that the UN is simply the “host” and Callaghan an “observer.” Israel insists the meetings are a bilateral matter between Israel and Lebanon.

The head of the Lebanese delegation, Brig. Gen. Mohammed EI-Hajj, maintains Beirut’s position that the talks are being held in the framework of the old Mixed Armistice Commission, a relic of Israel’s war for independence in 1948-49 which Israel claims was abrogated by Lebanon in 1967, and views the UN as a mediator with Callaghan serving as chairman.

The six senior army officers each country sent to Nakura sit at a triangular table at the center of which is the blue UN flag. Thursday’s session, closed to the press, was said to have been devoted to procedural matters. The only point of agreement was that future sessions will be held on Mondays, Wednesday and Fridays.

SUBSTANTIAL MATTERS AT FUTURE SESSIONS

The delegations will tackle substantive matters at the future sessions. As far as Israel is concerned, the substance and almost sole concern of these talks is the continued security of Israel’s northern borders once the IDF pulls out of south Lebanon.

But the Israelis appear far from convinced that the Beirut government, with the best of intentions, can deliver on this. Sources in Jerusalem said on the eve of the talks that the “really major” decisions will not come out of the meetings at Nakura but from the parallel, indirect negotiations being conducted between Israel and Syria through the offices of the United States.

ISRAEL’S OBJECTIVE IN THE TALKS

Israelis want the security provisions enshrined in a formal document to emerge officially from the Nakura meetings. They stress, however, that this would be something of a rubber stamp endorsing agreements that will, hopefully, be reached in the covert bargaining between Israel and Syria via the U.S. The sources give both channels of negotiations — the formal talks at Nakura and “discreet” contacts elsewhere — only a 50-50 chance to succeed.

They cited Syria’s traditional obduracy and Lebanon’s apparently irreconcilable internal divisions as the two major obstacles. The Israelis hope, however, that when the talks reach a crucial stage, Washington will dispatch a high level political figure, possibly even Secretary of State George Shultz, to clinch the deol.

The sources insist that in expressing that wish they do not disparage the current diplomacy of Richard Murphy, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs. Murphy is the Reagan Administration’s top Middle East aide presently in the region.

The State Department has repeatedly defined his mission as “fact-finding” and “exploratory” and says the U.S. has no intention of assuming a mediator’s role as long as the positions of the principal parties — Israel, Lebanon and Syria — remain far apart.

Nevertheless, Israelis consider Murphy an important channel of communications. They note that Syria, for all of its recalcitrance, has displayed a readiness in principle to talk. Its positions on Israel’s specific demands for security arrangements however are uniformly negative.

ISRAEL HAS FOUR DEMANDS

Israel has four demands: A Syrian pledge, given directly, or indirectly through the U.S., not to deploy its forces in Lebanon further south once the IDF evaucates; another Syrian pledge not to permit the Palestine Liberation Organization to infiltrate through Syrian lines into south Lebanon after the IDF leaves; the continuation of the Israel-supported South Lebanese Army (SLA), commanded by Gen. Antoine Lehad, in its role of maintaining security in the strip of territory just north of the Israeli border; and expansion of UNIFIL to maintain security north and east of the region the IDF will evacuate.

The inducement for Syria is the removal of the Israeli forces now facing its army in Lebanon’s Beka Valley and their potential threat to Damascus.

ISSUE OF UNIFIL

Defense Minister Yitzahak Rabin, who is the unity government’s key policymaker with respect to Lebanon, has said publicly that he would agree to a “symbolic” presence of UNIFIL right up to the Israeli border, something Israel has rejected in the past. But Rabin insists that Lehad’s force must have effective control of the border area because the Lebanese regular army is not capable of such a role.

Israel would like to see UNIFIL expanded from its present 5,800 soldiers to 10,000. Rabin has called UNIFIL’s role “vital”, a sharp departure from the rhetoric and attitudes of the previous Likud-led government which had been openly hostile to the UN force.

Meanwhile, Murphy is expected to remain in the area while the Nakura talks proceed. State Department denials notwithstanding, the Israelis consider his shuttling between capitals to be part of a behind-the-scenes mediating effort by the U.S.

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