Israeli officials said today that the willingness of the United States to station troops temporarily in Beirut could smooth the way for an agreement linking the departure of Palestinian guerrillas with a limited Israeli troop pullback.
A pullback of Israeli troops surrounding and harassing the Lebanese capital, which Israeli officials previously have ruled out, is a key demand of the Palestine Liberation Organization in talks aimed at securing the PLO's departure and averting a threatened Israeli assault on the city with its civilian population. Israeli flexibility on the issue could mark a breakthrough in the increasingly tense efforts of U.S. special envoy Philip C. Habib to arrange an accord before Israeli patience wears out.
An otherwise tough Cabinet statement Sunday pointedly left open the possibility of such a pullback, saying it could not take place without Israeli consent. There has been no indication how far back Israel would be willing to go, but PLO and Lebanese demands have spoken of several kilometers.
The officials cautioned, however, that the United States has not formally presented Israel with the reported proposal--to help evacuate PLO guerrillas on ships of the 6th Fleet and send a force of U.S. Marines and French soldiers to guarantee security in West Beirut for a period during and after the guerrillas' departure. Other Israeli sources with access to reports on the Beirut negotiations described exchanges there as "confused" and reiterated Israeli suspicions that PLO leader Yasser Arafat is stalling for time rather than negotiating in good faith.
The informants, who requested anonymity, recalled that, in addition to the pullback, Israel remains adamantly opposed to two PLO demands under discussion. These are efforts to leave a symbolic military force in Lebanon, perhaps integrated into the Lebanese Army, and to maintain a political presence in Beirut through a representative office.
The opposition was reaffirmed in a Cabinet statement Sunday and again last night by Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who said in a speech: "We shall not tolerate one terrorist in Lebanon, not even one."
The Cabinet is scheduled to meet again in an extraordinary session later this week to pass on Habib's efforts once they have produced a formal proposal Begin can submit to his colleagues. Although Israeli officials continued to stress that time is running out, Shimon Peres of the opposition Labor Party and other political sources expressed confidence that an accord is approaching.
Begin's firmness underlined the Israeli goal of smashing the PLO's political as well as military strength, removing it as a focus of Palestinian nationalism and as a threat of attack against Israel. Increasingly, Israeli officials have indicated a conviction that this will make it easier for them to control the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
In a manifestation of that policy, the Defense Ministry's occupation authority today dismissed the mayor and city council of Jenin, the West Bank's northernmost town, charging that Mayor Shawqi Mahmoud and his councilmen refused to meet and cooperate with the ministry's chief administrator, Menachem Milson.
A rock quarry owner, Shehab Sanoury, immediately was appointed to replace Mahmoud, marking the first time in the dismissals of six West Bank town councils that other Palestinians have agreed to replace those fired by Israeli occupation authorities. Today's move left only Bethlehem among the West Bank's principal towns with an elected municipal government.
Students at Bir Zeit University on the West Bank demonstrated against the Lebanese invasion today, but no injuries were reported. Protests and rock throwing--coupled with clashes between anti-Israeli Palestinians and other Palestinians armed by the Israeli Army--left two dead on Sunday.
As negotiations continued in Beirut--and, indirectly, among Beirut, the United States and Jerusalem--officials here said the Israeli Army will continue to apply increased pressure on West Beirut, including civilians, to persuade PLO leaders to surrender and leave.
"It must be clear to the terrorists that they cannot drag things on, as they are trying to do, that Israel has the means to put pressure on them," an official said.
This was a reference to Israeli shelling and cutoffs of water and electricity in West Beirut. The cutoffs have generated protests from the Lebanese government, the U.N. Security Council and President Reagan. An official who briefed correspondents nevertheless maintained Israel has received no formal request to halt the cutoffs and reported that the Jewish state has given no undertaking to anyone to do so.
"A few hours more or less should make no diference," he added, claiming water and electricity already were irregular in the besieged city.
Israel's government-run radio, which reported the plans for U.S. troops in Beirut long before they were announced, said Habib also is nearing agreement on a destination for the estimated 6,000 guerrillas surrounded there. Syrian-backed guerrillas will go to Damascus, it reported, while Iraqi-backed groups will go to Baghdad and others will go to Egypt and Algeria.