The Israeli government, responding to new proposals relayed by the United States, today categorically rejected suggestions that the Palestine Liberation Organization retain a token military or political presence in Lebanon.
"The government of Israel rejects without any qualification whatsoever every proposal concerning any presence--political, organizational or militarily symbolic--of terrorists in Lebanon," the Cabinet said after a meeting on the Beirut crisis. "All of them without any exception should leave Lebanon."
By rejecting outright the notion of any Palestinian presence, Prime Minister Menachem Begin's government heightened the chances of an Israeli assault on besieged West Beirut, particularly in light of repeated warnings from Israeli officials that time is running out for a PLO withdrawal. Yet at the same time, Israeli sources said the Cabinet decided to accord more time--how much was unclear--to U.S. negotiating efforts.
The government's stand today seemed to constitute a straightforward no to conditions sought by the PLO, some of which were made in a document signed yesterday in Beirut by PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat as part of negotiations there with Lebanese political figures and, through them, U.S. special envoy Philip C. Habib. The U.S. ambassador to Israel, Samuel Lewis, was reported to have informed Begin of where the talks stood including Arafat's latest position, during a meeting here last night.
Although the document signed by Arafat accepts in principle Israel's insistence on a PLO evacuation of Lebanon, the Lebanese state radio said, it also leaves open the question of PLO demands for token guerrilla forces to remain in the Bekaa Valley and northern Lebanon, presumably in a Palestinian refugee camp near Tripoli.
"The effort to reach a peaceful solution in Beirut and around Beirut is still going on," said Shimon Peres, leader of the opposition Labor Party, after a briefing from Begin. "I believe there is a fair chance to arrive at agreement with all the parties. We shall support the position taken by the government of Israel to go on with negotiations until a satisfactory conclusion shall be reached."
Despite the hard line on PLO presence--reportedly sought by the Palestinians but not spelled out in the document--observers detected a note of flexibility on another key Palestinian demand. This is Arafat's insistence that Israeli forces ringing Beirut stage a limited withdrawal linked to the withdrawal of PLO guerrillas.
Previously, Israeli officials have insisted this is out of the question--that discussions on Israeli pullbacks can begin only once all guerrillas have left. In today's statement, however, the Cabinet said:
"No change in the existing lines in Lebanon would be carried out without the consent of Israel."
With Israeli forces commanding the situation around Beirut, it seemed self-evident that they would change their lines only with the consent of the Israeli government, leading observers to conclude the statement was a backhanded way of opening the possibility of shifts in Israeli lines as part of a PLO withdrawal from the Lebanese capital.
According to reports from Beirut, Habib's discussions there include the possible stationing of a multinational force along with the Lebanese Army in West Beirut to enforce order as PLO guerrillas leave, perhaps also separating Israeli and Palestinian forces. Former Lebanese prime minister Saeb Salam suggested the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) could do the job. But Israeli is known to be suspicious of the U.N. troops and seemed unlikely to agree.
High Israeli officials cited by the government-run radio today emphasized that the United States, in keeping Begin abreast of the Beirut negotiations, was not seeking Israeli agreement for continued PLO military presence in Lebanon.
Pointedly, they said nothing about a political presence. Earlier reports said outgoing Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. suggested in a message to Begin last week that the PLO could retain an undefined political presence in Lebanon, a point that differed in nuance at least from the Israeli position. This is that all PLO members must leave, without exception, but that the Lebanese government once restored could allow eventually a PLO representational office such as those maintained in Paris or other European capitals.
Begin's government is intent on wiping out all forms of PLO presence in Lebanon, to remove its political as well as military threat to the Jewish state. Israeli officials have expressed confidence that whatever Arab state eventually accepts the PLO leadership will impose such tight restrictions on its operation that Arafat will lose much of his power to stir Palestinian nationalism.
Against this background, Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir and other government officials increasingly are indicating their hope that, because of Arafat's expected eclipse, Israel will have an easier time holding to the limited form of West Bank and Gaza autonomy it has in mind in the Camp David negotiations among Egypt, Israel and the United States.
West Bank Palestinians today staged a general strike to protest the threat against Beirut, leading to several incidents that left nine persons injured, some from Israeli soldiers' gunfire, the military government reported. It was the first time since immediately after the June 6 invasion of Lebanon began that significant unrest has flared in the occupied territories.