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Lebanon, Israel lay groundwork for troop withdrawals

Syrian and Palestinian agreement seems to be one of the main remaining roadblocks in the way of evacuation of all foreign armies from Lebanon.

Israeli and Lebanese leaders say they are confident this can be worked out. But first they have to resolve their own differences, including the question of future relations between their two countries.

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After weeks of delay, Israel and Lebanon are preparing to begin formal negotiations designed to remove all Israeli troops in exchange for normalization of relations. Israel also insists the Palestine Liberation Organization and Syria must pull out first, or at least simultaneously.

But Israeli and Lebanese leaders now say it is virtually certain the Syrians will quit the country at the same time as the Israelis. Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon Dec. 21 told a parliamentary committee that Syria had agreed with Lebanese officials to a mutual withdrawal. Lebanese Foreign Minister Elie Salam says the Syrians and the PLO are ready to leave. But the Syrians have made no statement.

Meanwhile, just the prospect of negotiations has significantly lowered tension in Lebanon, where Israeli, Syrian, and Palestinian troops are facing each other. Successful negotiations will be even better. If the talks are fruitful, they will end up giving Lebanon back its sovereignty and guaranteeing Israel peace along its northern border.

That would be a major achievement for diplomats and would give the Middle East peace process a great boost, clearing the way to resolution of the Palestinian problem.

To firm up the PLO's agreement to evacuate northern and eastern Lebanon, Lebanese President Amin Gemayel has sent two envoys to Tunis to meet with PLO chairman Yasser Arafat. The two men - journalist Jean Obeid and Brig. Nabil Koreitem - have been key figures in negotiations with Syria and the PLO in the past. Mr. Obeid has negotiated with Syrian President Hafez Assad and Mr. Koreitem helped work out the PLO withdrawal from Beirut in August.

If an understanding is reached with Syria and the PLO, the Israeli-Lebanese discussions will be significantly enhanced. These talks are expected to begin by the weekend, possibly convening in the Lebanese coastal town of Khalde.

Lebanon's chief delegate, former United Nations Ambassador Ghassan Tueni, Dec. 21 said these negotiations will be aimed at achieving an initial Israeli withdrawal from central Lebanon in early January, to be followed by a full Israeli-Syrian-PLO withdrawal from Lebanon in mid-February. Mr. Tueni, speaking on Lebanese television, admitted that Lebanon would have to find a way of guaranteeing security in the south of its country where PLO guerrillas once freely operated against northern Israel.

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Mr. Sharon says Lebanese officials have agreed to work with the Israelis toward a state of nonbelligerency. This would include no hostile propaganda from Lebanon, normal relations between the two countries, diplomatic representation, and establishment of a 45-kilometer security zone in southern Lebanon to be patrolled by the Lebanese Army. The Israelis also are seeking open borders and a Lebanese agreement to ban the PLO from establishing offices in Lebanon.

To secure northern, eastern, and southern Lebanon once the foreign armies pull out, Lebanon is asking for a tripling in size of the multinational peacekeeping force now operating in the Beirut area. American envoys Morris Draper and Philip Habib are working on bringing other European countries into the peace force. Britain has already agreed to send a small contingent from the soldiers it has seconded to the United Nations Force in Cyprus.

If, in fact, Lebanon can be secured by Lebanese and multinational forces, diplomats may then be able to focus more clearly on finding a solution to the Palestinian problem. The PLO's threat to Israel will have been minimized. And with security guaranteed, Israel may be a little more willing to grant self-rule to Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza.

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