Israel's new opportunity to withdraw from Lebanon

Israel seems suddenly to be hiking pressure on the Lebanese government to station a special Army brigade in south Lebanon and facilitate an Israeli pullback there.

The move by Israel came Sunday amid growing domestic sentiment for the Israelis to quit the country they invaded in June 1982 but leave friendly forces on their northern border.

What Israel did was to leak reports that a Lebanese Army officer named Col. Elias Khalil would replace the main pro-Israeli militia leader in the south, Maj. Saad Haddad, who died Saturday.

What the Israelis did not say is that Col. Khalil is the man whom the Lebanese Army has quietly been grooming to head a new ''territorial brigade'' in the south. Since November, Lebanon has been holding talks with Israel on just how and when such a force might take over from departing Israeli troops.

The Lebanese Army quickly denied the Israeli report - reflecting what diplomats saw as profound reluctance on the part of Lebanese President Amin Gemayel and the Army to risk such a move at present.

Beirut is presumably fearful of opposition to the move from Syria, from the late Haddad's own men - and, perhaps most importantly, from the majority Shiite Muslim population of south Lebanon.

Col. Khalil, like both the late Haddad and Mr. Gemayel, is from Lebanon's traditionally dominant Maronite Christian community. Col. Khalil hails from the village of Mardoucheh, near the south Lebanese #oast.

The ''territorial brigade'' was envisaged in a United States-mediated peace agreement between Lebanon and Israel last May. Syria is understood to have reiterated its opposition to that accord, calling instead for an unconditional Israeli withdrawal, in weekend talks with US envoy Donald Rumsfeld.

The south Lebanese Shiites have been slightly less categorical in opposing the brigade idea, but by no means support it under present circumstances, either.

In talks with Mr. Gemayel late last year in Washington, the US, too, made clear its hope for a speeded Lebanese Army move into the south. The US pressure has taken on ever greater significance for the Gemayel government amid signs the Americans and their partners in Lebanon's Western peacekeeping force are looking for a way to leave for home.

Meanwhile, on the issue of wider Arab-Israeli peace, Jordan's moderate King Hussein is preparing to reopen talks on a joint negotiating framework with Palestinian Liberation Organization chief Yasser Arafat. A top deputy of Arafat arrived in Amman Saturday.

Yet on both fronts - particularly the overall Arab-Israeli conflict - informed officials remain deeply skeptical of chances for early progress. And Western diplomats add that Syrian unease over the Jordanian-PLO dialogue may, if anything, toughen Syria's resolve to block present negotiating moves in Lebanon.

The Syrians, in any case, seem to share a widespread assumption in the Arab world that they can safely stick to their current diplomatic blockade and watch domestic political pressures in Israel and the West force the Israelis and the Western troops out of neighboring Lebanon.

If there is to be a break in the US-Syrian deadlock, one Lebanese politician said privately a few weeks ago, ''it may well come only after the Americans, for their own domestic reasons, pull out the marines.''

Similarly, some US officials seem to hope that if Mr. Gemayel forms his ''territorial brigade'' in the south, the move will facilitate at least a parital Israeli troop withdrawal and soften the Syrians' stand.

But as the initial Beirut reaction suggested, such a move may prove easier to talk about than accomplish.

Under the May 1982 accord, the brigade was to include the tiny Lebanese Army force currently in southern barracks, as well as troops from Haddad's militia and other local forces the Israelis have organized since invading.

But both Lebanese and Israeli sources, if reluctant to discuss details of the recent talks on the brigade idea, do acknowledge that it seems bound to fail without at least tacit support from the Shiite Muslims.

In private remarks to officials late last year, the mainstream Shiite political movement, Amal, is understood to have stopped short of rejecting outright the idea of a territorial brigade.

But Amal sources interviewed by the Monitor did say that, at a minimum, they could consider the issue only after Israeli troops had actually withdrawn.

And one prominent Amal representative in the south said that, in the absence of an internal Lebanese political accord ensuring widened power for the country's Shiite majority, Colonel Khalil, as a Maronite Christian, would be ''unacceptable'' as brigade leader.

Amal officials in the south are especialDy upset by moves by a jittery Israeli military in recent months to hand over many of their positions to Haddad militiamen, whether Maronites or the sizeable number of Shiites who joined with him out of shared opposition to the PLO before the Israeli invasion. The Haddad militiamen are accused by ordinary south Lebanese of general high-handedness, extortion, and even violence.

Additionally, Amal charges that the Israelis have allowed large numbers of Maronite militiamen from the Gemayel family's Beirut-based Phalangist Party to move into the south since late last year.

If so, this might further explain the reluctance of President Gemayel and his regular Lebanese Army to go ahead with the ''territorial brigade'' - since a similar infiltration of Phalangist fighters into the central Shouf mountains contributed to fierce fighting there after an earlier Israeli pullback last autumn. Mr. Gemayel, though a Phalagnist, has moved recently to loosen that tie and improve his relations with Syria.

But Israeli officials allege that Mr. Gemayel is at least partially responsible for Amal's coolness to the brigade idea, saying he has tried to work only with the discredited traditional leadership of the Lebanese Shiites rather than with Amal, which became the main Shiite force during Lebanon's 1975-76 civil war.

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