The critical moment is at hand for attempts to negotiate the exodus of the Palestine Liberation Organization from Beirut.
As Israeli warplanes pounded the Beirut area Monday, the United States was submitting to Prime Minister Menachem Begin a final written version of the package plan negotiated by US special envoy Philip C. Habib.
American Ambassador Samuel Lewis was scheduled to meet with Mr. Begin Aug. 10 to discuss the plan which covers the details of the PLO exodus.
The US feels that the plan is a good one. It will press for Israeli approval. The PLO is understood to have agreed effectively to all the points of the plan - with none of its factions voicing dissent. It has been exchanging comments on it for weeks via the Lebanese government.
Israel, however, will be the first of the three main parties involved - Israel, the PLO, and Lebanon - to see the plan in written form. The Begin government's reaction was far from clear at time of writing. The more positive sounds coming from Mr. Begin himself over the past 24 hours have been matched by serious doubts voiced by some senior Israeli officers (see report from Lebanon, Page 13) and by Defense Minister Ariel Sharon's visible lack of enthusiasm for the Habib peace plan.
The major sticking point from the Israeli perspective is likely to be the provision calling for 300 French troops to move into west Beirut prior to the withdrawal of all PLO forces. The French troops, part of a proposed multinational force intended to supervise the evacuation of west Beirut, would be moved in to protect the departing PLO men.
Israel has insisted that the bulk of the PLO must leave before the multinational force is deployed. The Begin government is concerned lest the force become a protective buffer behind which the PLO men might refuse to leave.
According to information reaching Israel, the Americans do not see the deployment of this small number as likely to create such a buffer. Conversely, the Americans believe that the level of shelling and the deteriorating conditions in west Beirut have created a genuine fear among the population of what will happen during or after the evacuation. The French troops are intended to assuage such fears.
The French contingent would be accompanied by special battalions of the Lebanese Army led by Muslim officers. These also would be designed to calm fears in largely Muslim west Beirut of Lebanese Christian reprisals.
The Americans do not believe that the issue of where the PLO men will go is unsolvable. Syria, Jordan, the Sudan, and Iraq, it is said here, are prepared to take sizeable numbers. There are said to be solid commitments by these countries , although the numbers they will take are not finalized.
Ambassador Habib is engaged in compiling precise lists of who will go where. Egypt, however, is still balking at taking PLO men without an overall Palestinian political solution. The Americans are known to feel Egypt's participation is important but that the operation could be done without their participation. Where the PLO leadership will go is not yet settled.
Israeli concern that the PLO might welsh on an agreement, especially if protected by a screen of foreign troops, is also addressed in the package. It spells out what happens if the PLO reneges after agreeing to a detailed departure schedule. All ground rules would have been violated and the multinational force would then be terminated.
The package has a carefully phased timetable, scheduled to begin on whatever date Mr. Habib decides and then to proceed over 15 days. D-Day depends on when Mr. Habib gets agreement by all three parties. It is estimated that the process could start within one week of such agreement.
The matter of several thousand armed PLO men remaining in Tripoli to the north of Beirut, and in the Bekaa Valley to the east, has not yet been negotiated. They, along with Syrian and Israeli troops in Lebanon, are considered part of the second stage of negotiations which will be undertaken after the first stage is completed.
The multinational force will consist of 2,000 men - 800 Frenchmen, 800 Americans, and 400 Italians. The French will arrive first because they were willing to do so and the Americans were not. None of these troops will land until all three parties have agreed to the entire package.
The multinational force is envisioned as a peacekeeping body not a combat force. If during the evacuation violence should break out they would be likely to get out of the way.
There is some worry here that a military blowup in Beirut remains possible. Defense Minister Ariel Sharon was given all the details of the package Sunday at his meeting with Mr. Habib in Baabda, Lebanon, and still appeared pessimistic. However, as negotiations moved close toward the finish it appears here that the US will press hard for Israeli approval.