U.S. special envoy Philip C. Habib will return to the Middle East in about two weeks in an attempt to prevent a renewal of fighting across the Israeli-Lebanese border over guerrilla raids into Israel and the reported buildup of Palestine Liberation Organization forces in south Lebanon, Israeli sources said today.
The visit by Habib, who mediated the Israeli and PLO cease-fire agreements of July 24, was prompted by warnings by Prime Minister Menachem Begin to the United States that Israel will not tolerate one more cross-border guerrilla raid such as that launched on Jan. 30 by the PLO across the Jordan River in which three Palestinians were captured with a large quantity of explosives. Two others escaped into Jordan.
The warning, issued last week to Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. by Army intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Yehoshua Saguy, followed a recommendation by Defense Minister Ariel Sharon to a Cabinet committee that the Army attack Palestinian troop concentrations in southern Lebanon in retaliation for the PLO Jordan River infiltration.
At Begin's urging, the Cabinet's ministerial defense committee decided against the attack plan recommended by Sharon, who for weeks had been sounding warnings about a PLO buildup in south Lebanon.
Haig is understood to have urged restraint by Israel in the face of PLO provocations and to have promised that Habib would seek ways to reduce the chances of cease-fire violations.
"The general intention of Habib to revisit the area sometime had been there, but the situation in Lebanon materialized it. Anything he can do to ease the situation will be welcome," an official Israeli source said today.
While Israeli forces on the northern border are still on a high alert, Sharon and other Israeli defense officials have begun to tone down their threats of strikes into Lebanon, saying now that Israel has no intention of attacking across any of its borders unless it is first attacked.
However, an appearance of a crisis--fanned by bellicose statements by defense officials here and by PLO charges in Beirut of an impending Israeli invasion--reached alarming proportions last week before Haig sent his reassurances to Israel and promised to return Habib to the region.
Tensions began building on Jan. 30 when an Israeli patrol captured three Palestinian terrorists who had crossed the Jordan River near the Mehola settlement with a large cache of explosives and weapons.
Acting on Sharon's orders, Israeli sources said, Army Chief of Staff Rafael Eitan late that night held a hastily called news conference at which he said that even though the Jordan border was not mentioned in the PLO-Israel cease-fire, Israel regarded the infiltration as a serious violation of the July 24 agreement. The guerrilla squad, Eitan said, had been trained in Lebanon and had passed through Syria into Jordan on its way to the West Bank.
In subsequent public statements, defense officials, including Sharon, picked up on that theme, adding that terrorist operations conducted even outside of Israel are conceived in Lebanon and, therefore, represent cease-fire violations. Sharon said that since the cease-fire, there had been 14 guerrilla infiltration attempts through Jordan, 21 attacks or attempted attacks on Jewish targets in Europe and 30 infractions in the southern Lebanese enclave controlled by Israeli-supported Christian militias.
At a Feb. 1 meeting of the Cabinet's ministerial defense committee, according to Israeli sources, Sharon presented a detailed proposal for attacking PLO strongholds in Lebanon, but Begin countered with a proposal to wait for a more serious PLO provocation and, in the meantime, he would send a personal envoy to Washington to present Israel's warning that further cease-fire violations would not be tolerated. Saguy was chosen because Israel's ambassador to the United States, Ephraim Evron, has left Washington and the ambassador-designate, Moshe Arens, has not yet arrived.