US may back Israel in debate over troop pullback in Lebanon
Jerusalem — As Secretary of State George Shultz departs the Middle East, United States policy in the region lies in disarray. Its one major achievement - facilitation of the Israel-Lebanon accord on Israeli troop withdrawal - has been firmly blocked by Syria's refusal to simultaneously withdraw its own troops. And with progress in Lebanon blocked, any possibility of renewed US effort to facilitate broader Arab-Israeli peace negotiation fades out of sight.
Mr. Shultz was frank about his not unexpected rebuff from the Syrians. He said he wished he could report some progress toward simultaneous withdrawal, but , ''I can't give any such report.''
While noting that ''close consultations'' with all parties would continue, Mr. Shultz earlier sharply downplayed the creation of a rather vaguely defined US-Syrian ''working group'' to continue dialogue on the subject of Lebanese unity and sovereignty.
It now appears that the US can only try to mount a salvage operation to save the form of the Israel-Lebanon accord, even if the substance remains frozen. This will of necessity involve somehow meshing Israel's determination to unilaterally pull back some of its troops from Lebanon with strong opposition to such a move from Lebanon and the moderate Arab world.
In discussions with Israel's Prime Minister Menachem Begin just prior to departing, Mr. Shultz expressed Lebanon's fears that a partial Israeli pullback would lead to de facto partition of its territory.
But, faced with Israeli determination to redeploy on security grounds, the secretary of state, according to a senior Israeli official, agreed that ''in the final analysis,'' such a move was Israel's prerogative. When asked his views on redeployment, the secretary said, ''We have to look at key long-range objectives and we have to judge any particular proposal in terms of its impact on those objectives and of course that is going to reflect timing and setting and related objectives as well.''
This seems to indicate that the US may be willing to accept Israel's definition of partial withdrawal as a stage in the implementation of the Israel-Lebanon accord. Deputy Foreign Minister Yehuda Ben Meir may have set the tone earlier this week when he said that if Syria continued to block implementation of the agreement, Israel, Lebanon, and the US should begin to coordinate ''a more gradual implementation of the agreement, the first step of which will be redeployment. . . .''
Israel is anxious, with US help, to keep the accord - which it considers almost as good as a peace treaty - from being abrogated.
While the accord has been ratified by the Lebanese Parliament, the instruments of ratification have not yet been exchanged with Israel. If Lebanon could be convinced to accept the definition of redeployment as put forward by Mr. Ben Meir, this could provide a cover to keep the document on ice in case the Syrians ultimately change their minds.
Israel wants to shorten its line in Lebanon's coastal and central regions, to cut casualties and save costs. But it intends to stay put in east Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, face to face with Syrian troops and only 25 kilometers from Damascus. This is being done to keep pressure on the Syrians to withdraw. One senior Israeli official said on Thursday that Israel was prepared to stay in Lebanon for years, if necessary, for the security of its people.
But Israeli sources indicated no final decision on the timing and lines of a partial pullback would be decided before the visit of Prime Minister Begin to Washington in late July. That visit will be preceded by a visit to the American capital by Lebanese President Amin Gemayel.
Israeli officials are aware that without the cooperation of both the US and Lebanon, their redeployment could face overwhelming obstacles. Thus they constantly repeat their desire to ''coordinate'' their withdrawal with both Lebanon and the US.
One of the most pressing reasons for such coordination is the need to find Lebanese or international forces to move into the territory Israel vacates in order to prevent Syrian or Palestine Liberation Organization forces from moving into the vacuum. The US, under the $550 million Lebanese Army Modernization Program, known as LAMP, is retraining the shattered Lebanese Army in hopes of creating a force of 36,000 men by the end of the year.
Israel will have to persuade a reluctant Lebanese government to send the Lebanese Army into the greater Beirut area and to the central Shouf mountain region where Lebanese Christian and Islamic Druze sects are engaged in bitter fighting.
These are the first two areas from which Israel wants to pullback.
This would be a crucial test of the Lebanese central government's rejuvenated sovereignty since informed observers believe that the Lebanese government would have to work out a political settlement between the Christians and the Druze before any Lebanese or international forces could be sent into the area.