Demands for an official inquiry into the Lebanon war mounted over the weekend following U.S. Ambassador Samuel Lewis’ assertion that Ariel Sharon disclosed plans for the Israel Defense Force to invade Lebanon to special U.S. Middle East envoy Philip Habib on December 4, 1981 when Sharon was Defense Minister. The invasion occurred six months later, at the beginning of June, 1982.
Sharon, now Minister of Commerce and Industry, denounced Lewis’ version of the meeting with Habib as “a gross lie.” But the State Department, after first refusing to comment, confirmed on Friday that the Lewis account was accurate.
The Department’s deputy spokesman, Edward Djerejian, responding to a question, declared in a prepared statement, “We can confirm that Ambassador Lewis has described the United States’ position on this matter with complete accuracy. We strongly object to any suggestion to the contrary.”
Djerejian did not say whether the Administration at the time had voiced any objections to the Sharon plan or whether it had consulted with Israeli government officials other than Sharon about the possibility of the plan being implemented. But the spokesman’s emphasis on Sharon’s role at the time as Defense Minister, appeared to suggest that U.S. diplomatic exchanges on the matter did not initially extend beyond Sharon.
“I think we all have to remember that Mr. Sharon was at the time the Minister of Defense of the Israeli government; to wit, we were talking with the Israeli government, in the person of its Minister of Defense,” Djerejian said. He added that Habib, then President Reagan’s special emissary to the Middle East, “expressed the United States government’s views fully to the government of Israel, and we continue to do so.”
LEWIS OFFERS HIS VERSION
Lewis, who ends his eight year tour of duty as U.S. Ambassador to Israel this week, disclosed the Sharon-Habib conversation in an interview broadcast on Israel television last Thursday. He said:
“Minister Sharon described in some hypothetical detail the concept for what ultimately I guess was called ‘Big Pines.’ Habib was, as I was and others of us were, rather dumbfounded by the audacity and the political concept that this seemed to involve. And Habib reacted at that point very vehemently… He made it extraordinarily clear to Sharon that this was an unthinkable proposition as far as the U.S. government was concerned.”
“Big Pines” was the code name for the IDF’s invasion of Lebanon, its drive to Beirut and its goal of destroying the Palestine Liberation Organization in Lebanon, driving out or forcing the Syrian army to pull out of Lebanon and setting up in Beirut a Lebanese Christian government friendly to Israel. This so-called “master plan” has long been attributed to Sharon and he has been accused in fact of witholding details of the operation and its ultimate objectives from other Cabinet ministers at the time. His conversation with Habib was reported in detail by Zeev Schiff, military editor of Haaretz, and Ehud Yaari, Arab affairs correspondent for Israel television in their book,” Israel’s Lebanon War.”
Ambassador Lewis was the first American diplomat to confirm that Sharon had in fact outlined his plans to Habib long before the invasion. According to the writers, Sharon maintained that the Americans would have to make peace with the idea that nothing could stop Israel from carrying out its aims in Lebanon and that the U.S. would become reconciled to it and reap its own benefits from the Israeli action.
SHARON ISSUES DENUNCIATION
Sharon’s immediate reaction to Lewis’ disclosure was an angry attack on the outgoing American envoy who he held responsible, along with Habib and Habib’s aide, Morris Draper, for the ultimate failure of Israeli ambitions and American policy in Lebanon.
The newspaper Yediot Achronot last Thursday quoted Sharon as saying: “It’s too bad that in his final appearance the American Ambassador didn’t feel the need to tell the truth and express remorse over the fact that he together with Philip Habib and Draper here and (former Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs Nicholas) Veliotes in Washington, were the cornerstones of the failure in Lebanon.”
Sharon added, according to the newspaper, “High-ranking figures have already expressed themselves concerning the American failures in Lebanon, of which Ambassador Lewis was the main architect. It’s too bad that Lewis didn’t understand the damage he caused by his actions and his unreliable reports to Washington. If he had acted more responsibly, and had not misled President Reagan in his reports, it’s possible that the situation in Lebanon today would be different.”
‘A WAR THAT WAS JUST WAITING TO HAPPEN’
In his television interview, Lewis said that early in 1982 he and other officials at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv saw Israel’s intentions toward Lebanon as “a war that was just waiting to happen” and that he repeatedly informed the Administration of this. He said the possibility of an IDF drive to Beirut came up on one later occasion, in May 1982 during a meeting in Washington between Sharon and then Secretary of State Alexander Haig.
Lewis referred to the description of that conversation in Haig’s book, “Caveat.” Haig told the Israeli defense chief that while no country could dictate how another country should act, Israel should be certain before it moved that its actions were “commemsurate in the eyes of the international community with the threat” posed to Israel from Lebanon.
The newspaper Davar, organ of the Labor Party, published a document Friday on Sharon’s talk with Habib. According to Davar, Sharon discussed the dangers of the situation in Lebanon and purported PLO violations of a cease-fire agreement reached in July, 1981.
Then, according to Davar’s document, Sharon discussed plans to invade Lebanon as far as Beirut — an invasion carried out six months later — and reportedly told Habib that the PLO and the Syrian army must be ousted from Lebanon if that country were to be free.
POSSIBLE CONFIRMATION OF CHARGES
The Davar report, if true, confirms the charges by many in Israel and the U.S. that Sharon was planning the large-scale invasion of Lebanon at a time the PLO was in fact abiding by the cease-fire.
It also suggests that the main target of the invasion was the Palestinian population on the West Bank which would have been rendered docile as an indirect result of the destruction of the PLO in Lebanon. Sharon’s plans also called for handing over 100,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon to the Lebanese authorities, according to the Davar document.
The invasion of Lebanon, launched by the IDF on June 6, 1982, was officially called “Operation Peace for Galilee.” The Likud-led government of Premier Menachem Begin insisted that its objectives were limited to driving the PLO beyond a 25-mile zone in south Lebanon, out of rocket and artillery range of Israeli border towns.
The Lebanon war cost Israel 650 dead and some 4,000 wounded from its outset until recent weeks. The IDF is now in the final stage of withdrawing entirely from Lebanese soil and is expected to be back behind the international border early next month. As the withdrawal progressed, demands rose from many quarters for an inquiry into the planning and conduct of the war and these centered on Sharon who played the key role.
But Premier Shimon Peres had publicly opposed an inquiry which would almost certainly bring down the shaky Labor-Likud government, a partnership of convenience established last September to deal with the nation’s ongoing economic crisis.