Despite hard-line words, PLO ready to lay down arms
The Palestine Liberation Organization is desperately seeking a means for guerrillas in west Beirut to lay down their arms and save what remains of the PLO and the city - despite assertions by Palestinian hardliners to the contrary.
But the Lebanese government was only slightly closer June 21 to accommodating the PLO than it was one week ago. And the Israeli Army was increasing physical pressure on west Beirut, aiming, it seems, to remind the Lebanese and the PLO of the grave consequences of procrastination and failed diplomacy.
This is how high-level Lebanese politicians see the situation here. Primary among these leaders is former Prime Minister Saeb Salam, who has worked doggedly toward inter-party consensus on disarming the PLO and returning Lebanese authority to western Beirut.
''They (the PLO) don't want to be a military power any more,'' Mr. Salam told the Monitor June 21. He is in almost constant contact with PLO chairman Yasser Arafat. ''They want to withdraw their arms, bring west Beirut under government control, and put all the (Palestinian) camps under the Lebanese military. . . . This does not require an Israeli withdrawal first, but we do need a breathing space.''
This ''breathing space,'' he said would be achieved if Israeli pressure on west Beirut - coming as bellicose statements by Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon as well as by ever-escalating artillery duels in the city - would decrease. Lebanese Army officials say they want all armed parties - Palestinian, Israeli, Phalangist, and Lebanese leftist - to pull out of west Beirut and outlying areas in order to let Lebanese soldiers take control. But that seemed only a remote possibility June 21.
To buy time, Mr. Salam called on President Reagan to do his utmost to keep the Israeli Army from attacking. But given Israel's history of exercising the speedy military option in place of the drawn-out political stalemate, the crisis pitch in west Beirut no doubt will continue.
''Abu Ammar needs time,'' Mr. Salam said, referring to Yasser Arafat by his code name. ''He and all the parties in Lebanon accept this (disarmament) plan, but within a reasonable time.''
Mr. Salam and a leading Lebanese editor concurred that the difficult task was not convincing Mr. Arafat (who, they say, has been chief advocate of this plan) but convincing other, more militant PLO leaders and guerrillas.
''Abu Ammar can't force people,'' Mr. Salam said. ''The Palestinians are prepared for an Israeli attack. They want to fight street to street.''
Mr. Salam says he believes the United States is not doing all it can to rein Israel in. He and other Lebanese leaders were closely watching news reports from Washington June 21 to see whether President Reagan would urge Israeli Prime Minister Begin to loosen the stranglehold on west Beirut.
On other diplomatic fronts, Saudi King Fahd was trying to influence Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon in order to avoid another clash with the Israeli Army. Last week, Lebanese President Elias Sarkis asked the Syrians to withdraw, but Syrian President Hafez Assad, contending the request was made under duress, refused and said unanimous approval of the Arab League would be necessary. King Fahd's efforts so far have failed to change Mr. Assad's mind.
Militarily, the Israeli Army was strengthening its positions around Beirut and in the mountains overlooking the Bekaa Valley June 21. Field reports said heavy tank traffic was moving toward the capital. Palestinian guerrillas continued to mine roadways and erect barriers around the city. Artillery fire was intense in the area of Palestinian refugee camps.
Abraham Rabinovich reports from Jerusalem:
Speculation was mounting June 21 about the possibility of an Israeli ground strike at the leadership of the PLO bottled up in west Beirut. There were reports that Defense Minister Sharon was lobbying for government approval for Israeli troops to storm the Lebanese capital.
Meanwhile, Israeli hopes were dwindling that the problem of the Palestinian stronghold could be resolved by diplomacy or by the Christian Phalange forces.
''Except for some minor artillery exchanges with the Palestinians, the Phalangists don't have the strength or the will to take on the Paletinians in Beirut,'' wrote Shmuel Segev, a senior correspondent for the daily Maariv, after a visit to Beirut. ''They're hoping we'll pull their chestnuts out of the fire for them.''