Israel's plan for securing its northern border has suffered a defeat with mass defections from the Israeli-trained Lebanese militia in south Lebanon. An Israeli government spokesman said, however, that the defections from the South Lebanon Army (SLA) would not delay Israel's planned withdrawal from south Lebanon. The first phase of the pullout, from the area around Sidon, is due to be completed by Feb. 18.
Most of the troops who have abandoned the SLA are Shiite Muslims, said Maj. Gen. Uri Orr, head of Israel's Northern Command. Those who remain, an Israeli military commander was quoted as saying on Israel Radio, are mostly Christians from the area just above Israel's northern border. According to the commander, one-third of SLA soldiers have defected.
Israel said it invaded Lebanon in June 1982 to drive Palestinian terrorists from its borders. Since then, it has attempted to extricate itself from a costly occupation. It has failed to secure any agreement with Lebanon or its Syrian backers. The SLA was supposed to have provided some border security. The mounting defections cast doubt on the SLA's continued use to the Israelis.
Israel had billed the force as representing the various Lebanese factions and has used it in positions throughout the occupied south.
Israeli officials have repeatedly insisted that the SLA was a viable force of some 2,000 men who would play a key role in assuring the security of Israel's northern border should Israel withdraw from Lebanon. An Israeli government spokesman said Wednesday that the policy of relying on the SLA to patrol a 15-kilometer strip above the border after Israel completes its pullout some time this summer remains unchanged.
Lebanese guerrilla fighters and officials have said that the SLA would be attacked once the Israelis withdrew their protection of the militia. Most of the desertions have occurred since Israel announced a month ago that it would withdraw from the south.
SLA troops manned checkpoints in Sidon until Tuesday. The Israeli military spokesman said that Israeli soldiers still control the city, but reports from Sidon said some Lebanese paramilitary forces have started to take up positions in Sidon.
It was reported Wednesday that some 1,500 Lebanese Army troops are now massed at the Awali River, the northern limit of Israel's occupation. The Lebanese have insisted that, contrary to Israeli predictions, order will be maintained in Sidon after the Israelis leave.
Israeli military sources denied reports that Israeli troops would withdraw before the announced date. But Lebanese guerrilla fighters have sharply escalated attacks recently on the Israelis and the SLA, sparking speculation here that Israel wanted to avoid providing the attackers with a chance to make a symbolic -- and possibly bloody -- strike against them on the pullout date.
The attacks have, if anything, strengthened Prime Minister Shimon Peres's resolve to pull out quickly, an aide to Mr. Peres said Wednesday.
In a related development, government officials Wednesday dismissed as ``nothing new'' reports that Jordan's King Hussein and Palestine Liberation Organization chief Yasser Arafat have agreed to pursue a joint peace initiative. No details of the agreement, announced Monday, have been released. Israeli analysts said Arafat made no new concessions.
The King flew to Algeria Tuesday to consult with President Chadli Benjedid on the accord, which some West Bank Arab moderates called ``historic.''
Israeli analysts said that the agreement was a face-saving measure to paper over continuing deep differences between the Jordanian and Palestinian positions. Last November the King invited the PLO to join him in seeking a negotiated settlement to the Palestinian issue. He insisted that UN Security Council Resolution 242 be the basis of any framework of cooperation. The resolution, rejected by the PLO, calls for Israel to relinquish occupied territories in exchange for peace.
Officials here said privately that they are far more concerned about the announcement that American officials will meet with Soviet counterparts in Vienna next Tuesday to discuss the Middle East.
The US State Department has said publicly that its position on the need for direct negotiations between Israel and its Arab neighbors is unchanged. But Israel's government will be closely watching the talks with the Soviet Union.