Lebanon swept by a wave of optimism
The prospect of imminent agreement on evacuation of Palestinian forces from Lebanon has generated a wave of optimism that has swept over outstanding problems.
The beleaguered and desperate Palestine Liberation Organization may be ready to overlook these problems in order to preserve itself and the civilians of battered west Beirut. PLO spokesman Mahmoud Labadi Aug. 16 said there were only ''minor details'' remaining and that an evacuation could begin within a few days.
With battle fatigue widespread in this country, there is general agreement that the PLO should depart peacefully. Perhaps that desire alone is sufficient to ensure that the departure now occurs without a hitch. But Israeli leaders continue to threaten military action if the evacuation plan devised by American diplomat Philip Habib falters. Over the past week Israeli soldiers have been laying in new supplies of ammunition at gun positions around the capital. Israeli jets were still flying reconnaissance missions over the city Aug. 16.
The Habib plan, it seems, could be in trouble if certain questions have not been adequately addressed. But because the negotiations are cloaked in diplomatic secrecy, no one knows if all points have, in fact, been handled. Reports from Israel indicate the Menachem Begin government no longer objects to deployment of a French vanguard of the proposed multinational force and no longer insists on a list of PLO guerrillas and their countries of destination.
But these problems remained:
1. Must the PLO still tender a list of its fighters, if not with Israel, with the somewhat malleable Lebanese government?
2. Would Palestinian families and allies in west Beirut be protected from reprisal once the guerrillas and the multinational force leaves?
3. Would the points of embarkation be under strict multinational control to ensure the safety of the PLO soldiers as they congregate to board ships?
Mr. Labadi of the PLO said there were still problems with the length of time the new multinational force would patrol west Beirut and some of the means of departure. He said the Lebanese government had assured the PLO it would protect the families of guerrillas and predicted that the Lebanese National Movement would help ensure their safety.
There was also a question about whether Syrian soldiers and irregulars in west Beirut would be evacuated, and Israel was demanding the release of a captured Israeli pilot and the bodies of nine Israeli soldiers. This latter demand was absolute, Israeli officials said, and the evacuation plan pivoted on its fulfillment.
Red Cross officials said negotiations on this matter had not yet begun.
Earlier this week, Mr. Labadi and Bassam Abu Sharif, who represent the PLO's most important center and leftist factions (Al-Fatah and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) told the Monitor they were skeptical about whether sufficient guarantees could be given to allow evacuation to take place. Mr. Labadi felt Israel did not genuinely want the PLO out of Beirut but instead wanted the standoff in the city to continue so that Israel could entrench itself in Lebanon.
Mr. Abu Sharif said it was not impossible to come up with a workable withdrawal plan but technical details were of major concern to him. These included questions about the future safety of the PLO's leftist Lebanese allies.
What Israel billed as ''major concessions'' ensued. Since then PLO officials have been reported generally optimistic -- partly because the Israelis had not imposed major new conditions as of Aug. 16, and partly because the PLO thinks Washington is determined to keep the Israeli military at bay.
Optimism was also being expressed Aug. 16 by former Lebanese Prime Minister Saeb Salam, who is the key go-between for Mr. Habib and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat, and by Lebanon's current prime minister and foreign minister, Shafik Wazzan and Fuad Butros. These elder statesmen have ties with a variety of Lebanese and Palestinian factions. Both Messrs. Butros and Wazzan said the evacuation could begin by this weekend. A Lebanese Cabinet meeting Aug. 18 would be decisive in determining if all obstacles have been overcome.
That was the hope of almost everyone in Beirut. But if one tours the rubble-strewn, burned-out buildings of west Beirut where thousands of PLO guerrillas are holed up, one wonders if so neat a diplomatic plan can work in such a disorganized environment. Mr. Labadi admitted recently that not even Mr. Arafat knows how many guerrillas there really are in the city. Estimates range from 5,000 to 13,000. They will all need to be rounded up, substantially disarmed, and put on ships for proper destinations in the Arab world. The current thinking of observers here was that if it is clearly stated that this is the last and only opportunity to escape Beirut before the Lebanese Army, the Phalange, and the Israelis take over completely, then almost all fighters will get aboard the ships. But to men who have lived with guerrilla warfare for years , throwing down weapons and getting on ships for destinations unknown will take a great collective leap of faith.