Even as radio broadcasts from Jerusalem Aug. 10 were reporting Israel's in-principle acceptance of a peace plan, Israeli jets were roaring through the summer haze and bombing Palestinian camps south of Beirut.
Israel's policy in what may be the final act of the three-month Israeli-Palestinian war in Lebanon was equal parts sword and olive branch.
Amid the continuous Israeli military pressure on Palestine Liberation Organization guerrillas in west Beirut, there nonetheless appeared to be agreement Aug. 10 among all parties -- Israel included -- that the PLO would leave Beirut peacefully, in stages, and that an international police force would enter the capital to keep the peace for a short time.
Formal agreement on the plan, however, was awaiting fulfillment of not insignificant conditions that Israel was attaching to its tentative acceptance. PLO leaders also wanted time to deliberate. Meanwhile, the Israeli military was building up its forces for a final assault in case the peace plan comes unglued.
Although Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir are expressing cautious optimism that the PLO pullout plan, formulated by US envoy Philip C. Habib, will work, the military wing of the ruling triumverate , led by Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, has thus far dictated the course of the war in Lebanon.
The invasion and the push as far as Beirut were Mr. Sharon's doing. The defense minister is still reported skeptical that a diplomatic settlement is possible -- and the Israeli forces under his command are both keeping the heat on the PLO and preparing for a big, final assault, just in case.
And, indeed the conditions that the Israeli Cabinet Aug. 10 put on the acceptance of the Habib plan threw the spotlight on its shaky aspects. Israel wants (1) a list of all the Arab countries to which the guerrillas will go and ( 2) assurances that the total number of guerrillas to leave is equal to the total Israel estimates is in Beirut: 6,000 to 9,000.
There appear to be no roadblocks to Jordan's acceptance of some 500 to 800 guerrillas who hold Jordanian passports. Under the Habib plan this group would leave first. They would be followed by 1,000 men bound for Iraq. Then the first contingent of the proposed French-Italian-American force would arrive.
This is where problems arise. Some 3,000 guerrillas are supposed to depart for Egypt and 4,000 for Syria. But Egyptian presidential adviser Osama El Baz has repeated his government's condition that the Palestinians can come only as part of a comprehensive settlement of the Palestinian problem in the Middle East. Syrian Foreign Minister Abdel Halim Khaddam, meanwhile, is quoted as saying Syria believes the US-Israeli aim is the ''liquidation of the Palestinian revolution'' and the transformation of the Palestinian problem into ''a problem for Syria.''
At this stage, Israel contends, if Egypt and Syria are reluctant to extend unconditional welcomes to the guerrillas, the 7,000 remaining in Beirut might decide not to leave. That would unhinge the Habib plan. And so Mr. Habib is being asked for firm declarations from the Arab hosts that the Palestinians can come.
Similarly, the PLO, in Israel's second condition, would have to commit itself to total evacuation of Beirut. Some reports say Israel also wants lists of the fighters and where they intend to go. PLO leader Yasser Arafat is asking for time to go back to his colleagues and get specific agreements that they will indeed leave.
Up to now, the more radical Palestinian factions, such as the Popular Front and the Democratic Front, have been most outspoken about staying and fighting. But the leader of the Democratic Front now says his forces are ready to go. And analysts in west Beirut say these radicals are generally inclined to leave in order to fight another day.
But Mr. Arafat's biggest problem may be his own Al-Fatah organization, in which there are some 5,000 guerrillas. This is the backbone of the PLO, and if it is dispersed or placed under Syrian control, that would mean the end of the PLO's independence and power in the Middle East.
If these sticking points can be resolved, the Habib plan might fly. The alternative is the violent showdown in west Beirut that the Israeli military is preparing for.