US keeps trying for diplomatic solution
Intensified US-mediated efforts to evacuate the Palestine Liberation Organization from Beirut have sparked some Arab optimism and mixed reaction in Israel.
By late Aug. 8, a senior Israel official suggested the Americans might yet find a Beirut compromise that Israel could accept.
But the Israelis also seemed intent on conveying to the US their unwillingness to sign on to any deal that would, in effect, give up what they have achieved militarily.
Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, following a three-hour meeting with US envoy Philip C. Habib in Baabda, Lebanon, said that no agreement was possible because no Arab countries had been found to give the PLO refuge. ''No arrangement, no agreement, no deal is possible,'' he said.
Jordan has said it would accept 800 to 2,000 PLO guerrillas carrying Jordanian passports. But Egypt said it would not accept any Palestinian fighters unless the evacuation was linked to an overall eventual solution to the Palestinian problem. In addition, Israel says that Syria has not made its position on its acceptance of PLO fighters clear.
Mr. Sharon, when asked about Jordan's reported willingness to accept some guerrillas, said it would make little difference because even if the report was true the majority of the PLO fighters had no place to go.
Earlier, Aug. 8, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin replied swiftly to what Israeli officials called ''an important letter'' from United States Secretary of State George Shultz outlining points worked out by Mr. Habib in Beirut.
A senior Israeli official commented that if the Shultz letter was an accurate reflection of the negotiating picture, and if unspecified remaining problems were solved, a ''solution may be close.'' This was the most optimistic remark on the negotiations in some time. But he added that failure to solve any key issues would forestall an agreement. According to reports from Israel and Lebanon Aug. 8, these issues centered around which countries would take the bulk of the Palestinian guerrillas and the procedure by which the PLO would leave Beirut and a multinational force would enter.
Reports from Beirut said the latest proposal envisions a staged withdrawal of 700 to 1,000 PLO men on French ships to Alexandria, Egypt, and Aqaba, Jordan.
But - and this is the major sticking point - Israel categorically refuses to accept the proposal that French military contingents be deployed between Israeli troops and PLO forces before the rest of the 6,000 to 7,000 PLO men in Beirut depart the city.
Israel insists that there cannot be a buffer set up between its forces and the PLO before they leave. The Israelis are concerned that the PLO might subsequently refuse to evacuate and use the foreign troops as a protective screen. Mr. Begin is said to have informed Mr. Shultz that there can be no multinational force without prior Israeli approval.
While only a few details have emerged from the meeting between Mr. Sharon and Mr. Habib, the Israeli defense minister has previously displayed hostility toward the US envoy and is known to question the chances of evacuating the PLO peacefully.
Mr. Sharon's close aide hastened to tell the Israeli media, after an Aug. 6 Sharon-Habib meeting that the US envoy, US Ambassador to Lebanon, Robert Dillon, and the French government were in collusion to save the PLO. After the Aug. 8 meeting, Mr. Sharon said he had done his best to ensure that a multinational force would not be used as a shield.
Some of Mr. Sharon's more moderate Cabinet colleagues have played down the collusion charges, but nevertheless expressed a widespread official suspicion of French government intentions. Israel Radio said that the Israeli Army has taken a position at the Christian port of Jounieh, 20 kilometers north of Beirut, in order, they said, to prevent any landing of French ships before Israel gives its approval. From now on all landings in the area will need approval from the Israelis.
Israeli officials said there had been no contacts between Tel Aviv and Paris on French participation in a PLO evacuation. A French government communique said Aug. 7 that Paris has not yet received a formal request from the Lebanese government or a response from Israel - both prerequisites for sending French troops.
Israeli officials said Israel would be flexible on technical details if it was crystal clear that the PLO was really willing to leave Beirut. But the swiftness of Mr. Begin's response to Mr. Shultz was intended, say these officials, to make Israel's position clear before any package deal is concluded in Beirut.
Some Israeli political analysts feel Israel would be willing to make further military moves in Beirut in order to discourage a diplomatic deal with provisions they opposed.