Beirut — The choice Aug. 3 had come down to whether the Palestine Liberation Organization would accept an American plan for its evacuation or the Israeli Army would again throw itself against the besieged city.
The plan reportedly proposed by United States envoy Philip C. Habib included three steps:
* Commencement within 15 days of the evacuation of Palestinian fighters from west Beirut either by land to Syria or by sea, under Red Cross supervision, or both.
* The withdrawal of large numbers of Palestinian guerrillas with their individual arms to be completed before a yet-to-be-formed multinational force arrives to patrol west Beirut. After the multinational force arrives, the balance of the 5,000 to 9,000 guerrillas and their leaders would depart.
* An Israeli pullback from the Beirut area and from the highway to Damascus at the time the multinational force enters the country.
The PLO was considering this plan Aug. 3, and reports at this writing indicated some PLO reluctance to agree to it. Timing was the key problem. PLO leaders object to any plan that would put their fighters in direct contact with the Israeli Army as they depart.
They fear also that if their strength in west Beirut is weakened by the departure of a large portion of their fighters before the multinational force arrives, the Israelis may find a pretext for rushing into the city. And PLO officials say that without a multinational force firmly entrenched in Palestinian neighborhoods at the time of a PLO military pullout, west Beirut's Palestinian community would be unprotected and might be subject to attack from Israel or from the Lebanese Christian militia, the Phalange.
Israeli and Phalangist forces, meanwhile, have indicated they are apprehensive about the multinational force (probably made up of Western European soldiers) entering Beirut before the PLO withdraws. They have told the Monitor they believe that if this force finds itself on the same side of town as the PLO , the PLO may decide to use it as a kind of shield and stay on in west Beirut.
The Lebanese government has called for a plan in which the PLO would evacuate simultaneously as the multinational force arrived. But observers here seem to doubt that timing can be so exact.
Still, this plan, which was reported in detail Aug. 3 by the influential Lebanese newspaper An Nahar, seemed the least vague proposal yet in the eight-week-old Israeli-Palestinian war. It furthermore had all the markings of being the culmination of diplomatic efforts to settle this problem peacefully.
Mr. Habib reportedly told Lebanese leaders that he is near the end of his mission, is frustrated by the quibbling all around, and is pessimistic about what might happen if the latest plan is either rejected or picked to pieces. He met with Lebanese President Elias Sarkis and Prime Minister Shafik Wazzan at the presidential palace in Baabda Aug. 3. Lebanese leaders were said to be urging him to persist in his peacemaking mission.
Waiting in case this is, indeed, the end of the diplomatic road is the Israeli Army. Throughout Aug.3 Israeli tanks stood in massed columns near the Museum Road crossing point. Farther south Israeli tanks fired on buildings in the Borj el Barajneh refugee camp. The next Israeli military step seemed likely to be a pincer movement against this camp.
Israeli jets were flying over the city late in the day, and observers here believed that the pincer movement would be preceded by the kind of massive bombing and shelling that occurred Aug. 1 when Israeli tanks advanced to their present positions on the edge of Borj el Barajneh.
That day's military action worsened the displaced-person problem in the capital, causing hundreds more families to flee the southern suburbs and the seacoast for the relatively safer Hamra and Verdun districts of west Beirut proper. United Nations relief officials were concerned Aug. 3 that the continual Israeli cutoff of water and electricity for residents of west Beirut, plus the problem of the displaced, was fostering disease conditions.