Lebanon, Israel talk but each keeps hard line
Few signs of optimism have emerged from talks on security arrangements for an Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon, which resumed Monday. There was no indication that either Israel or Lebanon had revised its position during the holiday break, despite hopes expressed by each that the other might have done so.
The deadlock focuses largely on the future roles of the United Nations force in south Lebanon (UNIFIL) and the Lebanese Army. Israel wants an expanded UNIFIL to deploy between the Litani and Awali rivers. Israel wants its local military ally, the South Lebanon Army, to be the main security force south of the Litani.
A hard-line speech Sunday by Lebanese President Amin Gemayel was widely seen as reflecting a tough position taken by Syria, the dominant influence on the Beirut government. The Syrian and Lebanese Presidents coordinated positions Dec. 27 and 28 at a meeting in Damascus.
UN forces, President Gemayel said, ``must not become a shield for an Israeli occupation of south Lebanon.'' He also called on Israel to announce a timetable for its complete withdrawal from Lebanon.
According to Lebanon's Druze-run radio station, ``Voice of the Mountain,'' Syrian President Hafez Assad urged Gemayel not to ``bow to Israeli demands.''
Israeli commentators saw a hard-hitting, anti-Israeli speech by Mr. Assad last weekend as further grounds for pessimism over prospects for the talks in Naqurah, south Lebanon.
A Lebanese military spokesman, however, appeared to open up some hope Monday. He said Lebanon was willing to discuss the deployment of a UNIFIL force throughout the area occupied by Israel, provided that Israel first announced a timetable for a total withdrawal. The UN force, he said, might be expanded, from 6,000 to 30,000 men. This offer is likely to return the focus to Israel's demand that the South Lebanon Army control the area up to the Litani River.
The Lebanese position has been further undermined by Lebanon's failure to implement its latest security plan. Lebanese Army units were to have deployed Monday along the main coast road from Beirut and into the Kharroub area, just north of Israeli lines, before the Naqurah talks resumed. The idea was to show Israel and the world that the Army was up to the job of controlling south Lebanon, as well as putting it physically in a position to fill the vacuum should the talks fail and the Israelis stage a unilateral pullback.
The plan has been delayed, diluted, and amended through months of wrangling among the Lebanese factions. Even so, last-minute disputes arose, blocking even the dispatch of 200 policemen who were to clear the front-line barricades blocking the main road and supervise a cessation of hostilities by the warring Druze and Christian militias before the Army entered the Kharroub.
Instead, the right-wing Christian radio station said that Israeli forces had crossed the Awali River into the Kharroub and taken up positions Monday around the Christian-controlled town of Joun. Beirut officials publicly blame Israel for undermining the new security plan by exploiting inter-Lebanese differences.
An informed source believes the Lebanese factions may have dragged their feet in the hope that a dispute in Syria may be resolved in their favor at the congress of the ruling Baath Party, which began Saturday. The conflict is between Vice-President Rifaat Assad and Vice-President Abdul Halim Khaddam, who has been largely in charge of Syrian policy in Lebanon.
After Monday's talks, Israel's delegation chief, Brig. Gen. Amos Gilboa, said the Israeli delegation would refer to its government and then get in touch with the UNIFIL commander, Gen. William Callaghan, on the question of the next round of talks, scheduled for Thursday. The statement appeared to leave open the question of whether Israel would take part.
Israeli leaders have been warning that if the Lebanese position had not become more flexible by the time the talks resumed, Israel might abandon the talks and take unilateral measures to cover the withdrawal of its forces. In September 1983, an uncoordinated Israeli pullback from the Shouf mountains triggered a violent battle.
Lebanese leaders have stressed the importance of UNIFIL's supporting deployment by Lebanon's Army up to the Israeli border. But they still resist Israel's demand for UNIFIL to deploy in a belt of territory south of the Awali and across to the Syrian border. Said a Lebanese official: ``We reject anything which divides Lebanon or cuts the Lebanese off from one another.''