Israel insists, as a condition for any settlement in Beirut, that Yasser Arafat and the "core" of his Palestine Liberation Organization be expelled from Lebanon to a country that does not border Israel, high Israeli officials said today.
The demand for banishment of the PLO leadership and at least some of its guerrillas is part of Israel's position that "all foreign armed elements" must leave Lebanon as a condition for Israeli withdrawal from the southern half of the country, which it occupied in an overwhelming assault 18 days ago, the officials explained.
Along with other Israeli conditions for lifting the siege of Beirut, it seemed to rule out a suggestion, which is reported to be under consideration by Lebanon's National Salvation Council, that Palestinian guerrillas withdraw into specified refugee camps while the Lebanese Army takes control of the capital and the Israeli Army pulls back three to six miles.
"This would definitely be a nonstarter," said a high government official who briefed correspondents.
Prime Minister Menachem Begin, on his return from Washington Wednesday, ruled out a U.N. presence in southern Lebanon and held out the hope that the United States might participate in a multinational peace-keeping force there. Begin said President Reagan did not officially reject the idea of U.S. participation in such a peace-keeping force but "the president has not yet decided to accept it," United Press International reported.
Israeli demands are backed up by armored forces surrounding Beirut and capable of storming the capital's Western sector where the remaining guerrillas are bottled up. Although Prime Minister Menachem Begin's government is holding off while special U.S. envoy Philip Habib seeks a political solution, Israeli officials have said an all-out assault or raid on PLO leaders could prove necessary.
Reports in the Israeli press from Beirut suggest that recent Israeli artillery fire on the capital was designed in part to empty crowded residential areas of their inhabitants so the number of civilian casualties would be reduced in any such operation. The Israeli government has been stung by reports--decried here as false--that the capture of Sidon, Tyre and several refugee camps in southern Lebanon caused high civilian casualties and left thousands of Palestinian and Lebanese civilians homeless.
The insistence on banishment of Arafat and his PLO lieutenants flows from Israeli fears that, even if they lay down their arms, the guerrillas could obtain new arms supplies and seek to rebuild the PLO as an armed group in Lebanon, the official said. For similar reasons, Israel will insist that the PLO "core"-- whose number was not specified--be expelled to a country without a border with Israel.
This excludes Syria, the PLO's main backer; Jordan, which expelled the guerrillas in 1970; and Egypt, in which it was suggested that Arafat could become the leader of a purely political Palestinian group or government-in-exile. Asked where the PLO leaders and guerrillas could go, the official indicated that Kuwait, South Yemen or Libya would be appropriate destinations.
"There are plenty of Arab countries that would welcome them . . .," he smiled, apparently aware of the curbs imposed on PLO activities in most Arab countries.
Despite the firmness on PLO expulsions, the official indicated some "minuscule" Syrian Army positions could remain in such areas as the northern Bekaa Valley as part of an agreement including Israeli withdrawal.
Nothing approaching the present scale of Syrian presence will be tolerated, the official said, and a total Syrian withdrawal remains the overall Israeli goal.
The determination to get PLO leaders and guerrillas--even disarmed--out of Lebanon reflects a widely discussed government aim to finish with the guerrilla movement as a threat to Israeli citizens or an obstacle to Begin's policy of retaining Israeli sovereignty over the occupied West Bank and Gaza.
"We see as an overall aim to reach a situation wherein Lebanon will never again serve as a base for aggression against Israel," said David Kimche, the Israeli Foreign Ministry's director general, who briefed correspondents.
Another official explained that this concern also extends to other Arab countries bordering Israel from which Palestinian guerrillas could reconstitute an ability to strike at the Jewish state.