With its forces still engaged deep inside Lebanon, Israel faced a new demand from the United States today to end the fighting immediately and withdraw its forces from that country. A message from President Reagan to Premier Menachem Begin — his third since the Lebanon operation began last Sunday — was delivered by U.S. Ambassador Samuel Lewis at 2 a.m. local time, indicating its urgency.
Several hours later it was announced by the Israeli Cabinet that Reagan will send Secretary of State Alexander Haig to the Middle East to deal with the situation personally. But a few hours later in Bonn, White House Counselor Edwin Meese said Haig would not be going to Jerusalem since Philip Habib, Reagan’s special envoy, is already in the Middle East. Habib was in Damascus today where he reportedly met with Syrian President Hafez Assad.
Israel Radio’s diplomatic correspondent reported that the idea of Haig going to Israel was raised in a telephone conversation the U.S. official had with Begin. Haig decided not to go to Israel, according to the radio report, because Begin reportedly said he would only discuss a cease-fire with the Syrians and not the Palestine Liberation Organization “as Israel negotiates only with governments.”
The contents of Reagan’s message were not disclosed nor was the nature of Begin’s reply after a 2 1/2 hour meeting with Ambassador Lewis. Reagan reportedly wrote to Begin in the friendliest terms but made it clear that the U.S. wants to settle the Lebanese conflict as quickly as possible.
ADMINISTRATION NOT TAKING HARD LINE
Reagan sent his message from Bonn where he is attending a NATO meeting. Deputy Presidential Press Secretary Larry Speakes would not say what it contained but indicated that it was consistent with the United Nations Security Council resolution demanding a cease-fire and pullback of Israeli forces.
But on a CBS-TV interview in Bonn, Speakes indicated that the Administration was taking anything but a hard line with Israel. “We would hope to end all hostilities there” (Lebanon), he said. He added, however, “We have to remember there has been shelling of Israel as well and what the President has called for is a withdrawal of all the parties that don’t belong there, and this would involve, of course, withdrawal by the Israelis but on the basis of a true cease-fire.” He appeared to be referring to Syrian forces in Lebanon and possibly the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Speakes also seemed to make it plain that the U.S. does not intend to penalize Israel and that it agrees with Jerusalem’s contention that the invasion of Lebanon was a defensive operation. Asked about the possibility of the U.S. holding up weapons deliveries to Israel, the White House spokesman said “I think you could have an argument by the Israeli government that this is defensive in nature, but I think the main emphasis that we have is not on punitive action but really in solving the problem.”
Despite the cautious tone of American diplomacy, the cease-fire demand confronted Begin’s government with an immediate dilemma. It must decide quickly whether to meet the American call for a cease-fire now and negotiate the terms of its withdrawal from Lebanon afterwards or to insist on negotiating terms for a cease-fire before it ends the fighting.
SOVIET PRESSURE SEEN
Israeli analysts suggested that Reagan’s latest and most urgent note may have reflected pressure from the Soviet Union. As long as the Soviets saw the Israeli invasion as a limited action with limited objectives to push the PLO out of firing range of northern Israel, they were content with rhetorical denunciations. But when the situation deteriorated into a confrontation between Israel and Syria, culminating with Israel’s massive air attacks yesterday on the Soviet-supplied Syrian anti-aircraft missiles in eastern Lebanon, Moscow turned to direct pressure on the U.S.
The Soviet leverage, the Israeli analysts said, derives from the fact that Reagan is scheduled to meet with President Leonid Brezhnev in the next few days and apparently the U.S. would like to see the fighting ended in Lebanon when that meeting takes place.
U.S. officials in Bonn denied that Reagan had personally consulted with the Soviet leader before he sent his latest message to Begin. But Speakes acknowledged that the U.S. has been in contact with the Soviet government and other governments, seeking help to end the fighting in Lebanon. Reagan was also meeting today with the Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal.
The analysts noted further that the American demands for a cease-fire would help establish Haig’s position as an “honest broker,” acceptable to Israelis and Arabs alike, when he undertakes what is expected to be a new round of shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East.
One question under consideration here is who will be in authority in Lebanon after Israel withdraws. Past experience shows there is no chance for a permanent solution of the long standing Lebanese crisis without the consent of the Syrians — not because of Syria’s military strength, which is considered vastly inferior to Israel’s, but because they are the only Arab force in the region strong enough to prevent the return of the PLO to Lebanon.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.