The call from Jerusalem lasted only five minutes. The conversation was cordial, but the message was plain: Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin was cancelling his long-awaited visit to Washington for personal reasons. President Ronald Reagan accepted that decision, and the White House subsequently announced that the visit would be rescheduled. But in Israel and in Washington, the cancellation fuelled speculation that Begin— 70 years old on July 23might be about to resign.
That rumor, coupled with the Israeli cabinet’s decision to begin a partial pullback of its forces in Lebanon and renewed sectarian fighting in and around Beirut, seemed to leave peace prospects in the Mideast more uncertain than ever.
Begin’s health has been a subject of concern for months. He has been deeply depressed over the death of his wife, Aliza, last November, which also caused him to cancel a scheduled meeting at the White House. The deaths of more than 500 Israeli soldiers in Lebanon, and the wounding of some 2,000 more, have added new emotional scars.
Moreover, Begin has never fully recovered from a broken hip suffered during a fall in his home nearly two years ago. And Israel’s bitter internal debate over the merits of the Lebanese war has added to his despondency. Begin’s public appearances have been few. His speeches in the Knesset have been short and without their customary intensity. Some Israeli newspapers have begun to speculate openly about a possible caretaker prime minister to lead the Likud coalition until elections due in the summer of 1985. Most observers predict that foreign minister Yitzhak Shamir would assume power in the interim.
Still, Begin has rebounded from previous bouts of depression. Indeed, as if to dampen speculation about his next move, the prime minister lunched last week in the Knesset cafeteria—a rare
appearance—and seemed remarkably cheerful. He also was overheard asking another cabinet minister: “Well, how do I look? Alive or dead?”
Moreover, Begin had sound political reasons for postponing his U.S. visit. If he made the trip before the cabinet decided to order a troop pullback, the Reagan administration would almost certainly have opposed the move, which could lead to the de facto partitioning of Lebanon. If the trip had been made af-
ter the decision, however, Washington might have again tried to force Begin to limit Israel’s West Bank settlements, which the U.S. views as a major hindrance to the peace process. On balance, with Israeli-U.S. relations much brighter than they were a year ago, there was little for Begin to gain in his talks with Reagan. Washington insiders had no official comment on rumors of Begin’s continued ill health, but one source noted pointedly, “For a sick man, he makes strong decisions.”
The pullback of Israeli forces in Lebanon disappointed both Washington and Beirut but surprised neither. In their previous positions, Israeli soldiers were caught between increasingly hostile Druze and Christian militias and susceptible to ambush. The partial retreat will likely take the Israelis to a line along the Awali River, just north of Sidon. Deployment there will not end Israel’s problems in southern Lebanon, but it will shorten supply lines and require fewer reserves.
But if withdrawal serves Jerusalem’s domestic and military purposes, it suits neither Beirut nor Washington. Israel’s vacated positions must be filled either by the Lebanese army, which few analysts regard as capable of policing the area, or by an expanded multinational force. Reagan is willing to send more U.S. marines to Lebanon, but the administration is divided on the wisdom of such a move—as is Congress. New attacks on Beirut airport last week, which wounded three American soldiers, did little to ease those concerns.
The rockets and shells fired at the airport and surrounding areas by Syrian-backed militia factions killed at least 17 people and injured 53. Washington analysts viewed the violence as evidence of « mounting Syrian pressure « on the government of Leisbáñese President Amin “ Gemayel.
The youthful-looking “ 41-year-old president spent five days in Washington last week. He held extensive talks with Reagan, Secretary of State George Shultz and other senior officials. Addressing reporters during a brief photo session before his Oval Office meeting, Gemayel said: “Don’t worry. Everything will be okay very soon.” The grounds for such optimism appear shaky. Druze leader Walid Jumblatt exploited Gemayel’s absence by announcing the formation of a National Salvation Front. Jumblatt said the front, which would include former president Suleiman Franjieh and onetime prime minister Rashid Karami, would oppose the Gemayel government. With Syria refusing to withdraw its 40,000man army from eastern and northern Lebanon and with Syrian-controlled Palestine Liberation Organization forces encamped around Tripoli, the Israeli pullback will divide the country into several spheres of influence—the smallest belonging to the Lebanese themselves. Damascus’ refusal to withdraw is officially based on the agreement signed by Lebanon and Israel in May, which would end the state of war between the two countries. According to Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, the agreement is an infringement of Lebanese sovereignty because it makes too many concessions to Israel —and his rejection of the pact is final.
The Reagan administration, as well as the Gemayel government, refuses to accept Assad’s reasoning. They contend that the Syrian leader is playing a clever diplomatic game, content to wait and be wooed with new concessions in return for Syrian withdrawal. In the meantime, he has taken effective leadership of the largest PLO faction, Fatah, and, as a result, he controls the future of PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat. He has also rebuilt, with Soviet equipment, the air force decimated by the Israelis during the Lebanese war.
Some observers believe that Assad will respond to U.S. overtures, but others are convinced that he cannot be successfully courted. Officially, Syria does not recognize the legitimacy of Lebanon, regarding it as part of “greater Syria.” The two countries do not exchange ambassadors. And, while Assad has twice received Shultz, he consistently declined to see Reagan’s roving Mideast ambassador, Philip Habib. Last week, after 26 frustrating months on the job, Habib resigned. His successor, deputy national security adviser Robert McFarlane, 46, plans to visit the region early next month.
Bidding farewell to Gemayel, Reagan said that their discussions focused on the next steps to be taken to assure full Lebanese sovereignty. Precisely what steps those might be is not clear. Other Arab governments, notably Saudi Arabia, have been unable or unwilling to pressure Damascus. And Israel clearly lacks the will to physically force the Syrians back. In sum, while Washington maintains that the peace process will go forward, it seems evident that it has come to a standstill. No major U.S. initiative is likely to be undertaken during a presidential election year. As a result, more aggressive moves are not likely to be taken before 1985. Only the boldest forecaster would dare to predict what might happen in the interim. MICHAEL POSNER in Washington, with correspondents1 files.
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