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Israel: Pullout Signs

4 minute read

Hope for southern Lebanon There is no such thing as a good solution to the Lebanon question. The most we can wish for is to make the best of a bad job.” Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin offered that bleak but accurate observation last week amid small, conflicting signs that the eventual withdrawal of 22,000 Israeli troops from southern Lebanon may be growing closer. At the United Nations, it was announced that Israeli and Lebanese military delegations will hold their first meeting this week to discuss the pullout. In Jerusalem, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs, Richard Murphy, met with Prime Minister Shimon Peres and other leaders (though Murphy sidestepped an Israeli request for the U.S. to act as a mediator in the withdrawal effort). In Damascus, the Syrian capital, there were official expressions of approval at the prospect of a Lebanese-Israeli meeting but continued rejection of two key Israeli demands: that Syria promise not to move into the vacuum created by an Israeli withdrawal, and that Damascus guarantee Israel’s northern border against Palestinian guerrilla infiltration.

The most significant development was a growing sense in Israel that its forces must be withdrawn from Lebanon quickly. After its first formal Cabinet debate on the issue, Peres’ Unity government last week declared that Israel was committed to getting out of southern Lebanon as soon as possible. The Cabinet did not set a date, but instead endorsed a two-part withdrawal strategy involving negotiations with the so far intransigent Syrians and with the Lebanese military on security arrangements for the area.

Peres has suggested that the negotiating process and eventual withdrawal might take as long as a year. That may not be soon enough for the Israeli public, which is growing ever more weary of the 29-month occupation. Pressure of a different kind is coming from the U.S. The Peres government clearly expects the Reagan Administration to help Israel out of its economic crisis. But at the same time, the Administration is determined to maintain a neutral role in the southern Lebanon negotiations unless, as State Department Spokesman Alan Romberg puts it, all parties to the dispute “adopt practical, problem-solving approaches.” In that vein, this week’s Lebanese-Israeli military talks, to be held at U.N. headquarters in the southern Lebanese town of Naqoura, must be considered a small step forward. At the meeting the Israelis are expected to reiterate their insistence on a post-withdrawal role for the 5,200 U.N. peacekeeping troops in southern Lebanon, along with whatever units of the Lebanese Army can successfully patrol the area. In addition, Israel will insist on a substantive security role for the Israeli-backed, 2,100-man South Lebanon Army (SLA) commanded by General Antoine Lahd. The Lebanese are said to be ready with a compromise offer: the integration of about 600 members of the SLA into a newly formed Lebanese force that would serve alongside the U.N. contingent. The Israelis have not indicated whether they would accept such a deal.

Amid the small signs of accommodation, there was one clanging note of discord last week. Speaking at a Tel Aviv University symposium commemorating the sixth anniversary of the Camp David accords, U.S. Ambassador to Israel Samuel Lewis criticized his bosses’ efforts in the Middle East. Commenting on the Reagan Administration’s September 1982 peace plan, Lewis called the timing of the proposal “abysmal, the tactics of presentation worse, and the outcome, so far, nil.”

Officials in Washington were outraged at Lewis’ remarks. Secretary of State George Shultz was described as “chewing the carpet.” The State Department noted lamely that Lewis, a highly regarded career diplomat, did not “criticize the substance” of the Reagan plan. Lewis emphasized that the remarks were “personal musings” and an embassy spokesman said that the Ambassador “remained firmly committed” to the Reagan proposal.

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