As a means of maintaining stability on the Israeli-Lebanese border, the United States has become part of a "community of interests" that is seeking to weaken Syria's influence in Lebanon with the help of financial leverage from Persian Gulf Arab states, Israeli sources said today.
As U.S. special envoy Philip C. Habib completed a round of talks here with Israeli leaders, the Israeli sources also said that Habib now interprets the July 24 cease-fire between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization as applying not only to the Lebanese border, but to all of Israel's frontiers.
The sources added that Habib is interested in diluting what Israel regards as a menacing buildup of PLO weaponry in southern Lebanon because he feels a personal responsibility for the cease-fire that he helped engineer during last summer's PLO-Israeli cross-border war of attrition.
The Israeli assessments of U.S. positions came just as Habib traveled to Damascus, Syria, to continue his diplomatic shuttle in an effort to maintain the fragile cease-fire. The U.S. envoy is scheduled to continue on to Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Beirut and then back to Jerusalem sometime next week.
The Israeli sources, who declined to be identified, are authoritative, and their comments appeared to reflect the views of officials involved in the talks here with Habib. But the motives for disclosing to reporters what were purported to be American positions presented in confidential discussions were less than clear, particularly since Habib's reported comments are at variance with official U.S. declarations.
One possible motive for the Israeli leaks is that the Israeli government is interested in steering the U.S. administration toward a policy of actively encouraging moderate Arab states into a confrontation with Syria over the continued presence of Syrian troops in Lebanon.
The Israeli sources said that the various adherents to the "community of interests" seeking to weaken the Syrian presence in Lebanon--each for their own reasons--has concluded independently that the gulf states hold the key to the future of Lebanon. The adherents to this strategy include Israel, the United States and at least some of the Arab states Habib has visited on his numerous diplomatic shuttles, which include Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Lebanon, according to the sources.
They noted that the Kuwaiti parliament already has voted to suspend Kuwait's annual contribution to the Syrian-dominated Arab Deterrent Force in Lebanon and that other Arab states could follow suit in hopes of weakening Syria's power base in Lebanon.
"This seems to be the trend developing. If this trend keeps up, it will influence the situation in Lebanon," an Israeli source said.
When asked if this is Israel's interpretation or Habib's, the source replied, "We were mostly on the listening side" during the Habib visit.
Israel long has maintained that Lebanon will not be stable until Syria withdraws its approximately 25,000 troops from that country and the central Lebanese government asserts its authority. But the United States, much less Saudi Arabia and the other Arab states, has not publicly held that premise as a goal attainable through the exertion of financial leverage by the gulf states against Syria.
The Israeli officials stressed that any interest of Arab states in weakening the Syrian presence in Lebanon may be purely self-serving, an apparent reference to some of the gulf states' displeasure with Syria for its support of Iran in its war with Iraq.
On at least two major points, the Israeli interpretation of Habib's position allegedly taken during meetings with Prime Minister Menachem Begin, Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Defense Minister Ariel Sharon differed widely from previous official U.S. views: senior U.S. officials have said that the Israeli-PLO cease-fire does not specify borders other than southern Lebanon's, and American officials have questioned Israel's contention that Palestinian guerrilla armaments have increased significantly in southern Lebanon.
In Washington, State Department officials said they had no comment on any aspect of Habib's mission, and they noted that Habib has not made any public comments on the substance of his talks. But a spokesman added that there "has been no change in State Department policy in the region."
But the Israeli sources said Habib left them with a different understanding.
"Our understanding is that Mr. Habib sees the cease-fire as comprehensive, and not just applying to the kilometers along the Lebanese border. The cease-fire is a cease-fire of terror against Israel. It seems that is how Mr. Habib understands it," an Israeli source said. The source refused to be identified.
The breadth of the cease-fire became an issue in January, when Palestinian guerrillas based in Lebanon crossed the Jordanian frontier into the occupied West Bank and clashed with an Israeli Army patrol. Israel said then that it regarded the raid as a serious violation of the cease-fire, and, amid reports that Sharon was urging an invasion of Lebanon, the Israeli Army began mobilizing along the northern border.
The Israeli sources also said that Habib is eager to secure a pullback of PLO military concentrations in southern Lebanon because of its threat to the cease-fire.
"There is a community of interest in having this done, also. It boils down to having the PLO pushed out of the area, in addition to a removal of the Syrian missiles," the Israeli source said. He was referring to the Syrian SA6 surface-to-air missiles deployed in central Lebanon's Bekaa Valley after Israeli jets shot down two Syrian helicopters April 27.
According to the Israeli account of Habib's statements, the U.S. envoy's emphasis was on the PLO buildup in southern Lebanon and not on the concentration of Israeli forces on the other side of the border.
This interpretation also appeared to be at odds with positions asserted by at least some senior U.S. officials, most recently by Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger, who said in a television interview Sunday: "I think there has been a military buildup on the borders near Lebanon and obviously it is to our interest and to the interest of the world to do everything we can to prevent any military action or any invasion or any use of troops taking place."
Meanwhile, Reuter news agency reported from Damascus:
Habib conferred with Syrian Foreign Minister Abdul-Halim Khaddam. No statement was immediately issued by either side on the talks.