Cold winter ahead for US, Israel in Lebanon?
The signs are not encouraging.
Negotiations on withdrawal of foreign troops from Lebanon are at an impasse with some 1,200 American marines contemplating a cold Christmas in Beirut. And increasingly, Israel and the United States are at odds over who's to blame.
The key bone of contention between the two countries is the mutual suspicion that the other is linking progress on withdrawal of Israeli troops from Lebanon to movement on the broader Reagan Mideast peace initiative.
Israeli officials contend the US is prodding Israel to exit Lebanon without satisfactory security and political arrangements. The US is doing this, they charge, in order to curry favor with Arab moderate states, especially Jordan, which Washington must attract to the negotiating table if the Reagan plan is to succeed.
In Washington, on the other hand, suspicions are growing that Israel is deliberately dragging its feet in order to scuttle Mr. Reagan's initiative.
The President has staked his personal prestige on resolving both the Lebanon and Palestinian issues. His plan calls for a freeze on Jewish settlements on the Israeli-occupied West Bank and a solution to the Palestinian problem there by creating a Palestinian-Jordanian confederation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Israel, which wants to keep sovereignty over the West Bank, categorically opposes the Reagan plan. It insists, over US disclaimers, that the plan exceeds the Camp David framework already worked out for negotiating the future of the two Israeli-occupied territories.
On the American side, the growing bitterness of relations with Jerusalem was evident in the recent argument over the amount and terms of US economic and military aid to Israel. Also, Deputy Secretary of State Kenneth Dam twice criticized Israel last week for insisting that troop withdrawal negotiations with Lebanon be held in Jerusalem rather than in Jerusalem suburbs and for seeking political concessions from the Lebanese government for a military pullback. (Lebanon opposes the Jerusalem venue because it would anger fellow Arab states.)
Israeli bitterness was reflected in the pro-government daily Yedioth Aharanoth. The paper wrote: ''Washington's conception of us can be stated in one sentence: We are to give in to Lebanon so that it can work things out with Syria , and to concede to Jordan so that it can come to an agreement with the PLO . . . and thus Washington wished to turn us into a dispenser of charity to our neighbors.''
Israeli officials, notably Defense Minister Ariel Sharon and Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir, have repeatedly charged that in its eagerness to attract Jordan to the negotiation table, the US is courting the Palestinian Liberation Organization whose green light - or perhaps even indirect participation - would be necessary for Jordan to enter peace negotiations on behalf of West Bank Palestinians. ''This policy is becoming clearer every day and it is a dangerous policy,'' argued Mr. Shamir.
The Americans are hoping at minimum that the PLO will authorize Jordan's King Hussein to set up a joint negotiating team with Palestinians who are not officially PLO members, whatever their political sympathies.
Israeli officials still hope to cut the tie between progress in Lebanon and the Reagan plan and to turn the focus squarely on security arrangements in Lebanon anchored in broader political agreements. They don't think this will be possible until Prime Minister Menachem Begin meets with Mr. Reagan in February.
''Can this tie be broken?'' asked Maariv political columnist Yosif Harif, reputed to reflect Prime Minister Begin's thinking. ''But in order to do so, a dialogue on a higher level is required between President Reagan and Prime Minister Begin.''
Israeli officials are counting on the PLO and King Hussein to help them achieve their objectives. Israeli sources express skepticism that King Hussein will receive a green light from the PLO before meeting with Mr. Reagan in Washington on Dec. 21, and thus expect the King to turn down the US request to join the peace process. Notes columnist Harif: ''Since Begin will come to Reagan after Hussein, will the President of the US be able to say that he (Mr. Begin) should accept the Reagan plan, which had been rejected by Hussein and Arafat?''
Sources here indicated Washington very much wants movement on the Lebanon issue before the Begin visit but are less certain how this can be achieved.
They are certain, however, that a continued stalemate will contribute to suspicions in some quarters in Washington that Israel intends to stay in Lebanon and effect a de facto partition of the country. Syrian troops would then control the east and north and Israel the south. Should this be the case, all sides agree the Reagan plan would be unlikely to ever get going.