Israel relaxing grip on Beirut, a lighter mood prevails

Israel's steel grip on Beirut was relaxing Aug. 17 and normal peacetime activity was returning to streets that one week before were part of a nightmarish urban battleground.

Israeli tanks chugged back from the area of the Lebanese parliament building, giving over control to the Lebanese Army. Israel was also to relinquish its checkpoints at the three major east-west crossings: the seaport, the National Museum, and the Galerie Semaan.

Long-shuttered shops on both sides of town were being opened, but few shopkeepers were bold enough to remove sandbags from in front of windows, for peace has cheated the Lebanese often in the past. Goods in west Beirut were still in short supply (and electricity was still cut off) due to a continuing Israeli blockade. Nevertheless, a distinctly lighter mood was evident, reflecting the budding optimism of Lebanese, Palestinian, Israeli, and American politicians that peaceful evacuation of Palestinian guerrillas from the city could begin by next week -- that there might be no more fighting in the city of Beirut.

Israel's pullback from around the parliament building Aug. 17 was significant for another reason: It will allow Lebanese deputies to meet on relatively neutral ground Aug. 19 to begin trying to choose a new chief executive.

A successor to President Elias Sarkis must be elected by Sept. 13. The only declared candidate for the office (who, by agreement, must be from the country's Maronite Christian community) is Bashir Gemayel, the 34-year-old leader of the rightist Phalange militia.

It is possible that a new president can be chosen quickly -- but that depends on whether a quorum of 62 deputies can be mustered. Mr. Gemayel is thought likely to poll the necessary 47-vote majority if the quorum can be found. But many of the parliamentarians from west Beirut and from areas of Lebanon still under Syrian and Palestinian influence -- notably, the northern port of Tripoli and the eastern Bekaa Valley -- oppose an assembly at this time. Many think it is inappropriate given the trauma Lebanon has just undergone, and many others oppose Mr. Gemayel, whose Phalange soldiers have openly cooperated with the Israeli Army in its invasion of the country.

But supporters of Mr. Gemayel insist that elections must be held by Sept. 13. They reject the idea of extending the term of Mr. Sarkis until Lebanon returns to normal.

''Without elections you have no republic,'' an official with the Lebanese Front, the Maronite political coalition, told the Monitor. ''This would give any group around a chance to grab what it has its hands on. By that we mean Israel, Syria, US and afterwards, the deluge, the end of Lebanon.''

Though a presidential crisis could soon be upon the country, politicians still could not turn their attention away from the questions surrounding the evacuation of the 5,000 to 13,000 Palestine Liberation Organization guerrillas from Lebanon. The fact that all parties to the negotiations continued to predict that the evacuation was at hand generated considerable hope.

But still under discussion were these sticky issues:

1. The return to Israel of one of its airmen who was captured by the PLO early in the war, plus the bodies of nine other Israeli soldiers. Israel wanted this done unconditionally. The PLO wanted some of its captured soldiers returned in exchange.

2. The departure of 2,000 to 5,000 Syrian soldiers and irregulars from Beirut. Israel was offering to let them cross to Syria by land, taking with them both heavy and light weapons. But Damascus had not yet agreed to pull its men out of Beirut.

US envoy Philip Habib was in Damascus Aug. 17 trying to resolve this problem and making doubly sure Syria is still committed to receiving the bulk of the PLO.

3. The precise phasing in of a French-Italian-American peacekeeping force with the phased departure of the guerrillas. Cyprus was offering to allow the multinational force and the PLO to stage their operations through its territory.

If the PLO withdrawal goes forward, the next step will be a US attempt to get both Syria and Israel to withdraw.

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