As PLO leaves Lebanon, Israel focuses on getting Syria to withdraw
Now that Palestinian guerrillas are evacuating Beirut, Israel is turning its attention to how to get the Syrian Army and thousands of remaining Palestinian fighters out of Lebanon.
The Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon is issuing some not-so-subtle threats that the Syrians would be wise to move soon. Speaking to foreign reporters in an east Beirut highrise as he looked out at the PLO evacuation ship departing the harbor, Mr. Sharon said, ''We hope there will not be any need to put military pressure on the Syrians.''
Israel, the United States, and the Lebanese government have all described the departure of the Palestine Liberation Organization from Beirut as a first stage toward removal of all foreign forces from Lebanon, including Israeli troops. However, Israeli Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir stressed in a radio talk on Aug. 1 that Israeli forces would not leave Lebanon until all Syrian and PLO forces had left first.
In his east Beirut press conference, Mr. Sharon stressed repeatedly - as if to hammer home the impression - points he had been making public for days. ''The Syrians have a problem,'' he said. Unlike the past when Arab heavy artillery in Lebanon could reach Israel's northern city of Haifa, ''the situation now is that all Damascus is within the range of our artillery, which is 16 miles from Damascus.''
Informed sources here say the Israeli Cabinet is split over how to remove the Syrians and remaining PLO. The Syrians have approximately 25,000 to 30,000 troops in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley east of Beirut. The Syrians entered Lebanon under a 1976 Arab League mandate to police the armistice following Lebanon's 1975-76 civil war. To these forces will be added 1,500 Syrian troops leaving Beirut, as well as 2,500 Palestine Liberation Army troops in Beirut under Syrian command. In addition, thousands of armed PLO guerrillas remain in northern Lebanon around Tripoli and in the Bekaa Valley behind Syrian lines. (Syrian Foreign Minister Abdul Halim Khaddam told US officials that Syrian troops will leave Lebanon once the Lebanese government makes a formal request, a Lebanese decision dependent at a minimum on establishment of a new central government in Beirut and assurances that Israeli troops would be withdrawn.)
Some Israeli Cabinet hard-liners reportedly savor combining diplomatic moves on the Syrian issue with military pressure, while others prefer using American diplomatic good offices as much as possible.
Defense Minister Sharon, who has said repeatedly in recent days that the PLO exodus was a direct result of Israeli military pressure on Beirut, must take several factors into account in choosing his tactics. Military action against the Syrians would certainly anger the United States which now intends to move into high gear with broader diplomatic initiatives on the Arab-Israeli peace process. Moreover, before using force, he would have to convince Prime Minister Menachem Begin and some former Cabinet backers who were angered by his lack of consultation before the last heavy bombing raids over Beirut.
In addition, the Labor Party, heretofore rather quiescent in attacking his tactics, has gone on the offensive against further fighting in Lebanon. Leading Labor parliament member Danny Rosolio said Aug. 22 that Israel should not use military pressure against Syria. He said the Syrians were ready for a diplomatic solution without military action.
At a minimum, the Israeli government clearly intends to keep the pressure on the Syrians.