TEL AVIV (Dec. 16)
Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin believes that an accomodation with Syria is essential to an agreement with Lebanon that would permit the withdrawal of the Israel Defense Force from Lebanese soil and ensure the security of Israel’s northern borders.
According to Rabin, Syria holds the key to the dead locked Israel-Lebanon military talks, now in their third week at Nakura, under the auspices of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL).
Furthermore, the Israeli defense chief told journalists at a Foreign Press Association luncheon here Friday, an expanded role for UNIFIL in south Lebanon after the IDF withdraws is the paramount consideration, superseding the dispute between Israel and Lebanon over the role to be played by the Israel-backed South Lebanon Army (SLA).
Rabin told the overseas journalists that the priorities facing Israel’s Labor-Likud unity government, in order of urgency are: the country’s economic crisis; withdrawal of the IDF from Lebanon; thawing the “cold peace” with Egypt; and extending the peace process with Egypt to Israel’s other Arab neighbors.
ESSENTIAL TO BRING SYRIA INTO POLITICAL TALKS
On the matter of Lebanon, Rabin drew a distinction between the military talks at Nakura and the overlying political issues. It is essential to bring Syria into the political negotiations, he said, “for the simple reason that Syria has come out of the Lebanon war as the most dominant factor on its (the Lebanese) government. That might be an unpleasant fact, but it is a fact,” Rabin said.
“We would like to see the Syrian army out of Lebanon but we have made it clear we have not made Syrian withdrawal a condition,” the Defense Minister said. “If Syria would like to continue to be bogged down in the Lebanese mud, let them enjoy it.” Rabin added tha while Israel would like to have normal, peaceful relations with Lebanon, that, too, has not been made a condition for its withdrawal.
He noted that Israel insists on security arrangements that will protect its northern borders. This does not mean a guarantee that no Katyusha rockets would ever fall on Israeli soil. What Israel wants, he said, is to avoid a situation whereby Palestine Liberation Organization forces control territory north of the border from where they could fire at will on Israel, as was the case before the Lebanon war in 1982.
Rabin also observed that “What we face in Lebanon today is more a Moslem Shiite war than a war between the PLO and Israel. And I would like to avoid that.”
What Israel is seeking now, Rabin said, was a political agreement negotiated indirectly with Lebanon and Syria through the good offices of the United States. The Reagan Administration’s top Middle East aide, Assistant Secretary of State Richard Murphy, has been in the region for the past week and is shuttling between Jerusalem, Beirut and Damascus.
Rabin’s stress on UNIFIL’s peace-keeping role is a sharp departure from the position of the previous Likud-led government. Israel wants UNIFIL to police the area of south Lebanon up to the Awali River, the line now held by the IDF. If that can be worked out, the dispute over the SLA in the immediate border region will fall in place, the Defense Minister said.
SEES NO RAPID THAW IN RELATIONS WITH EGYPT
Rabin did not expect a rapid thaw in relations with Egypt which, he said, is presently intent on repairing its bridges to the rest of the Arab world. But he noted that the Egyptians seem ready to resume negotiations on their border dispute with Israel over Taba, a sliver of land on the Gulf of Aqoba which both countries claim. “I have never heard of an area the size of 1,200 meters by 600 meters creating a problem anywhere, ” Rabin said.
(Reports from Cairo over the weekend, via U.S. sources, said the Egyptians have agreed to resume the Taba negotiations at Beersheba, and possibly alternately in Alexandria.)
Rabin noted that Israel is willing to meet another Egyptian condition for improved relations, namely progress on the Palestinian issue. Israel seeks to improve the quality of life for the Palestinians on the West Bank, Rabin said.
He explained in reply to questions that since the Arab mayors and leaders in the territory have placed their fate in the hands of the PLO or King Hussein of Jordan, “we cannot talk to them about any political solution in the area. We can only talk to them about daily matters.”
Rabin said he had told Mayor Elias Freij of Bethlehem that if Saudi Arabia or any other Arab country offered him a million dollars, he could accept it and use it for local purposes, building schools or playgrounds or hospitals but “not for political or terrorist purposes.”
REJECTS LOCAL WEST BANK ELECTIONS
Rabin rejected local elections in West Bank towns. The last, held in 1976 when he was Prime Minister, brought Arab nationalists and radicals into office, most of them subsequently deposed by the Likud government.
He noted that local elections were never held in any of the 22 Arald nations and “We have no intention of being the torch-bearer of democracy throughout the Arab world when they themselves do not practice such democratic procedures.”