Israel may be planning to oust PLO by force, not talk
Washington — Behind Israel's carefully worded expression of hope for a negotiated solution to the crisis in Beirut lies an Israeli conviction that force will in the end prevail.
This is the impression which Israeli Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir left with a number of Middle East specialists as he concluded his two days of talks here. Mr. Shamir gave every indication that he thinks President Reagan's special envoy, Philip C. Habib, will fail in his current negotiations and that this leaves Israel no choice but to tighten its military vice on west Beirut.
That tightening may never come to a single, full-scale ground assault on the city, but instead a series of piecemeal actions which have the final aim of crushing the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
At a White House meeting with Foreign Minister Shamir on Aug. 2, President Reagan, in effect, warned the Israelis against further military action around Beirut. In the President's view, such action was disrupting Mr. Habib's efforts to get the PLO to withdraw from the city. There seems to be little doubt that the President was angry over the Israeli bombing and shelling which took place against west Beirut on Aug. 1.
But Mr. Shamir apparently left that meeting still convinced that military pressure was precisely what was needed if the PLO were ever to withdraw. In the Israeli view, the PLO has been stalling for time, attempting to parley its military defeat into a political victory. The Israelis see no evidence that the PLO is really prepared to leave Beirut, despite what the Americans seem to accept as an agreement in principle to leave.
''We are far less optimistic about the chances for a diplomatic solution than the Americans are,'' said an Israeli official following Mr. Shamir's talks here with Reagan administration officials.
But he added:
''If the Israeli threat did not exist, the PLO would have no reason to negotiate. Habib's main bargaining card is the Israeli threat.''
In his public statements, Shamir was slightly more optimistic about the situation than Israeli officials were in private. In an interview Aug. 3 with ABC Television, the foreign minister said: ''I hope that we are near to a solution of this crisis . . . we prefer by diplomatic means.''
According to an Israeli official, President Reagan let Shamir know that he felt whatever the provocation from the PLO, Israel's military reaction had been ''disproportionate to the provocation.''
''The foreign minister argued that if the PLO violates the cease-fire and Israeli soldiers get killed, the PLO has to see from our response that this cannot go on,'' the official said.
The Israeli official, who asked not to be identified, gave the impression that Shamir came away from his meetings here relieved that there had been no confrontation with the Americans over the Beirut situation. The Israelis had apparently been led to expect worse than they got from Mr. Reagan.
''It was really a friendly atmosphere,'' the official said. ''We thought the differences . . . were really less acute than we were led to believe they would be.''
''Mr. Reagan said he was going to be firm, and we expected the whip hand. . . . But there were no threats attached to what he said. There was an exchange of views.''
Israeli officials authorized to describe the Reagan-Shamir talk said that the two sides still shared common objectives in Lebanon and that their differences were only over tactics. But the Israelis leave the clear impression that they are not enamored of Habib. They consider his effort to arrange a cease-fire in Lebanon last year - generally considered a success story here - to have been a failure, because it did not result in the removal of Syria's Soviet-made, surface-to-air missiles from the Bekaa Valley.
The Israelis were relieved to find that Reagan was not insisting on a tight linkage between the PLO departure from Beirut and some future settlement of the Palestinian problem. The President had come down in favor of ''first things first,'' an Israeli official said.
The Israeli Embassy in Washington recently issued a policy background paper here which argued that Israel's battle against the PLO ''permits no compromise.'' It said that recent statements by PLO leaders attempted to project ''a more moderate image'' but that these were obviously ''the unreliable utterance of desperation.''
''The PLO's central aim had always been, and remains to this day, the total liquidation of the State of Israel as the legitimate, internationally recognized expression of the Jewish people's elementary right to nationhood,'' the paper says. ''The PLO has never renounced that aim. . . . In the face of that attitude , the concept of compromise becomes meaningless.''