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Cease-fire Spurs Hopes of an Easing of U.s.-israel Tensions

July 27, 1981
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The cease-fire on the Israel-Lebanon border has spurred hopes here of an easing of tensions between Jerusalem and Washington, tensions which were exacerbated by the Israel Air Force bombing of Beirut during the “mini-war” with the Palestine Liberation Organization.

At the same time, the government is bracing itself to rebut criticism at home over its handling of the fighting and of the diplomatic efforts that led up to the cease-fire. Labor Party chairman Shimon Peres has charged that the cease-fire, announced by U.S. special envoy Philip Habib last Friday, could have been attained a week earlier.

On American-Israeli relations, Israeli optimism was encouraged by the tone and content of a message received by Premier Menachem Begin last night from Secretary of State Alexander Haig congratulating him on the cease-fire.


“The President,” Haig wrote, “has asked me to convey his deep personal gratification and congratulations on your efforts to help bring stability to the region and a de-facto ceasefire.

“We fully realize the difficulty of the decisions your government has made to take risks in the interest of promoting peace and stability in the region. The de-facto cease-fire is fragile and must be strengthened. We are confident that with your essential help we can move together to stabilize conditions further and bring a greater measure of security to the citizens of Israel and Lebanon then they have known for years.” Haig sent similar messages to President Elias Sarkis of Lebanon and to Crown Prince Fahd of Saudi Arabia.

The last passage in Haig’s letter to Begin appeared to foreshadow American efforts to obtain a broader and deeper resolution of the on-going political turbulence and violence in Lebanon. Israeli sources say they expect Habib, who left for Washington to report to Reagan on the cease-fire, to return to the Mideast soon to continue his efforts to defuse the Israel-Syria crisis which resulted from the deployment of Syrian anti-aircraft missiles in eastern Lebanon.


On the home front, the government is facing criticism on three separate counts in connection with the fighting and the cease-fire. One is that the policy of massive bombing — especially the raid on PLO offices in residential Beirut — was militarily ineffective and politically highly damaging to Israel. “The PLO scored points … Israel lost in the court of Western opinion,” Peres said in a weekend statement.

Other elements of criticism are that the cease-fire could have come earlier and thus avoided the casualties and damage of the last few days of fighting; and that Israel in effect struck a deal — albeit indirectly — with the PLO and thereby gave the PLO a significant political victory.

In a television interview, Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir sought to head off each of these charges. The agreement, he stressed, was made with Habib whom Israel had empowered to negotiate with Lebanon’s President. “The government obligated Philip Habib not to enter into any contact with the PLO,” Shamir stressed. The Foreign Minister added that the PLO itself declared that it had refrained from any contact with the U.S. envoy and had dealt solely with the United Nations.


Nevertheless, diplomatic sources in Israel said this was special pleading since it was clear to all concerned that the PLO, as the other combatant, was involved throughout in the diplomatic efforts to reach a cease-fire. Habib, they noted, spent much of his time in Saudi Arabia and both Israeli and PLO sources agreed that the Saudis played a key role as middle-men.

Moreover, Habib’s effort was conducted in close coordination with parallel efforts by the UN, both in New York and in the region. UN officers here met with PLO chief Yasir Arafat in Beirut and with Israel’s Deputy Defense Minister Mordechai Zipori in Tel Aviv. Now that the cease-fire has been obtained, it is the UN observers who are monitoring adherence to it.


On the time element, Shamir denied in his TV interview that there had been any procrastination by the government. He said, “We received this (Habib’s) proposal several days ago. We had to deliberate, to consult … We made our suggestions to Habib. He went to Beirut and to Riyadh. He returned, and the moment he had a proposal we gave our answer.”

On the Beirut bombing and its political aftermath, Shamir stressed that “We did not bomb Beirut. We bombed PLO headquarters in a certain neighborhood in Beirut. Of course, there are occasionally adverse reactions to actions that we take … by people who are not in the same situation that we are in. For the U.S. and other nations this is but one detail of the general international landscape. For us it is a war for survival.”

Shamir said Israel regretted all civilian casualties. But every war caused casualties, and “We warned this time that we would not refrain from attacking terrorist bases and headquarters, even if they seek sanctuary amidst civilian populations. And you must also realize that the same people who live in the buildings that house their headquarters are people connected in one way or another with the Palestinian organization’s activities.”

Summing up the entire episode, Shamir asserted that it represented “a noteworthy achievement for Israel.” He said the PLO had been prevented for more than a year from infiltrating its men into Israel and had been forced to shell and launch rockets from deep inside Lebanon as the sole means of attacking Israel. “If the (cease-fire) agreement ends this too, then it is a very noteworthy achievement for the State of Israel,” he said.

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