Israel seeks US nod for pullback
Israeli officials are trying to persuade US Secretary of State George Shultz and the Lebanese to accept their intention to partially withdraw their troops in Lebanon.
Mr. Shultz, after talks in Syria, however, does not appear to have brought any evidence of a change of heart in Damascus which might have persuaded Israeli leaders to delay their redeployment, which appears increasingly certain.
Syrian hostility to the terms of the Israeli-Lebanese agreement on Israeli troop withdrawal from Lebanon - and Syria's refusal to pull back its 40,000 soldiers - has stymied Israel's hopes of removing its men from the Lebanese quagmire. Frustrated, the Israeli government has decided to shorten its lines in Lebanon.
But the US and Lebanon are nervous that a partial Israeli pullback may result in the de facto partition of Lebanon and thwart the hope of ultimately obtaining a total pullout by both Israel and Syria.
While no official Israeli government decision has yet been taken on redeployment, officials including the foreign minister have been talking as if the move was a foregone conclusion with only the timing and the exact new lines to be worked out.
Even as Shultz was meeting with Syrian President Hafez Assad in Damascus on Wednesday, prior to arriving in Jerusalem, experts from the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) were presenting options for Israeli military redeployment to a special meeting of key Cabinet ministers who decide on security issues.
Israeli leaders were never optimistic that Shultz would bring results from Syria. The American official's trip was aimed at exploring the chance for flexibility in the Syrian hard-line position, and he himself made clear he was not aiming for a ''breakthrough.''
But following his five-hour meeting with the Syrian President, the Syrian government released an official statement saying that Assad had told Shultz that Syrian rejection of the Israel-Lebanon accord was ''final and irrevocable.'' The statement said the accord was unacceptable because it ''undermined Lebanese sovereignty, unity, and attachment to the Arab world.''
Shultz was quoted by United Press International as telling reporters that his discussions with Assad ended in disagreement over the Israel-Lebanon troop withdrawal pact. ''We basically argued about it and had no agreement . . .,'' he said. Shultz indicated, however, that he believed the door had not been closed on a dialogue.
Earlier an unidentified senior Syrian official told the Associated Press that ''even if Israel implements a partial withdrawal, the Syrian Army will not move one inch until a full Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon is completed without any ties or conditions.''
Israeli officials say any redeployment will be gradual. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens is known to favor a gradual pullback in slow stages, testing the situation along the way. Radio Israel reported that Mr. Arens' recommendation is that Israeli troops pull back to the Awali River, 45 kilometers north of the Israeli border, by November.
But in order to implement such plans, Israel needs the cooperation of reluctant US and Lebanese leaders. One Israeli official source said, ''That is why we want to talk with the Americans. We hope Lebanon will not oppose redeployment.''
One reason Lebanese and American cooperation is so necessary is that their assistance will be needed in providing substitute forces for territory evacuated by Israel. Israel would like to see the multinational peacekeeping force of US-French-Italian-English troops, now in the Beirut area, sent into the evacuated territory to assist the Lebanese Army, perhaps aided by United Nations troops based in south Lebanon. But Lebanon must make the request to multinational force countries - most probably France - and to the UN.
Moreover, Lebanon must be convinced to send its own Army into this tricky terrain. The US is most unlikely to send more marines, but it is responsible for retraining the Lebanese Army and would certainly be a key factor in encouraging that force to take on such a difficult task.
Moreover, Israel does not want to jeopardize the accord with Lebanon, now on ice, by the act of redeployment. ''Of course we want to keep this agreement; we worked very hard to get it,'' said one Israeli official.
But a senior Lebanese official told AP in Beirut on Tuesday that Lebanon ''will not feel bound'' to implement the accord with Israel if the latter makes a partial withdrawal of its troops which is not in the context of a scheduled total pullback.''
In order to surmount Lebanese objections, the Israelis now appear to be trying to describe a partial pullback as falling within the context of the Israel-Lebanon agreement.
But Foreign Ministry sources denied that this indicated Israel would continue the process until it had withdrawn totally and unilaterally. This, Israeli officials fear, would encourage President Assad to believe that he can simply sit back and wait for them to move. Thus, Israel reacted sharply last week to a suggestion by special US envoy Philip C. Habib that it set a date for a total unilateral pullout. Officials stressed this week that Israel will have to remain in south Lebanon until the Syrians leave.
Unless Shultz can deliver some indication that the Syrians may yet change their minds, the US will find it awkward to pressure Israel against redeploying. On the one hand, Shultz encountered opposition in all the Arab capitals he visited - Riyadh, Beirut, and Damascus - to a partial Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon. On the other hand, only recently President Reagan virtually accused Israel of being an occupying force for keeping its troops in Lebanon. As one Israeli journalist noted, ''It is unlikely that Mr. Reagan can turn around now and say he won't send F-16 fighter planes because Israel now wants to give up territory to the Lebanese.''