Is a breakthrough looming in the stalemated Israeli-Lebanese talks on a withdrawal of foreign forces from Lebanon? Understatement is always wise in any Middle East negotiation. But the visit to Washington of Israeli Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir seems to have lifted hopes that a solution is possible. Both the United States and Israel are making some positive noises after what had been a serious deterioriation of relations. This comes none too soon. The violence against Italian and US troops in Lebanon is a reminder of the need to keep pressing for an agreement.
If progress is truly afoot, one can credit President Reagan for holding firm on certain critical issues. It is thought that Mr. Shamir went to Washington in order to probe whether there was any give in the US position put forth by special envoy Philip Habib with respect to security arrangements in southern Lebanon. The US has backed the Lebanese government's stand that Israel must withdraw completely. Even a residual Israeli military presence in the south is seen as unacceptable because Syrian and remaining PLO forces would also refuse to leave, thus blocking Lebanon's effort to restore its sovereignty. The President and his secretary of state reportedly refused to abandon this principle.
Washington is responsive, however, to Israel's legitimate concern that southern Lebanon not again become a staging platform for terrorist raids on Israeli villages. Details of the US proposals which Mr. Shamir took back to Israel are not known, but the broad plan as reported in the press looks promising: The Lebanese Army would have responsibility for patrolling the border area and absorb the Israeli-supported militia of Major Haddad; the multinational force in the Beirut area would be increased; and a joint commission would be set up to investigate security violations.
The Israeli Cabinet will now consider the proposals. Inasmuch as many have doubted Israeli commitment to vacate all of Lebanese territory, agreement to do so would greatly bolster Israel's image. Suspicion remains that Prime Minister Begin not only seeks a foothold in Lebanon which would assure Israel's access to the Litani River, but is dragging out the Lebanese talks in order to slow US attention to the even larger problem - Israeli occupation of the West Bank. Can it be that Mr. Begin's new defense minister, Moshe Arens, who has stirred favorable comment by ordering more humane treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank, is helping nudge Israel toward a more realistic course?
It is premature to conclude so. Changing an inhumane style of governing in the West Bank does not mean changing Israel's inhumane settlement policy. Mr. Arens is considered one of the most hawkish leaders of Mr. Begin's party, and he supports both settling the West Bank and retaining Israeli control of it. But he is also determined to maintain good US-Israeli relations and thus may prove to be more flexible. The change would be welcome.
Israel, of course, is not the only factor in Lebanon. Whatever accord is reached in the current talks, it will also be necessary to persuade Syria to withdraw its troops. The Beirut government and the US apparently feel they have a Syrian commitment to do this, but it is not clear what kind of Israeli-Lebanese agreement Damascus will accept. Will President Assad demand something from the US in return for a pullout - some reassurance, say, that the US will not forget about the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights?
As usual, the Middle East scene is awash in uncertainties. But it is encouraging that President Reagan and George Shultz are now more heavily involved in the peace process. Having invested so much, they cannot afford to fall short of reaching an agreement.