Israel has received the first "substantive" proposal for the peaceful withdrawal of the trapped Palestinian guerrillas in West Beirut, offering a "glimmer of hope" for a peaceful resolution of the Lebanese crisis, senior Israeli officials said today.
The proposal by the Palestine Liberation Organization was relayed to Israeli officials here yesterday afternoon by U.S. special envoy Philip C. Habib, marking the first time in the protracted negotiations that Israeli officials have acknowledged receiving concrete suggestions for withdrawal from the American diplomat.
"For the first time we could say that there may be something here after all," a senior official said of the message. "Today, Mr. Habib probably has increased the chance of pulling it off."
But the officials emphasized that Israel remains skeptical of PLO intentions and said that the proposals relayed by Habib did not contain a timetable for withdrawal, which Israel has demanded as a sign of good faith by the Palestinians. They dismissed reports from Beirut that an evacuation could begin as early as Monday, saying that even if there were a final agreement it would take "two or three days" to work out technical aspects of the withdrawal.
"There are still many points in the PLO proposal that are unacceptable," an official said. "There is still a lot of hard bargaining ahead."
One of the major sticking points is the timing of the arrival of an international peace-keeping force in conjunction with a PLO withdrawal.
Reports from Beirut today indicated that the PLO appears to have backed away from its previous insistence that the international troops be deployed or at least arrive in the city before the Palestinians begin their withdrawal. Officials in Jerusalem reiterated today Israel's opposition to either possibility, fearing that the PLO would use the presence of international troops as a protective screen to hide behind and remain in West Beirut.
Israeli officials have suggested that they might accept a partial withdrawal of about 1,000 guerrillas while the Israeli Army remains in place around the city, after which the international force would take up its positions and the remaining PLO fighters would withdraw.
But Israel's state radio said that Jerusalem had told both Washington and Paris that it opposes deployment of foreign troops in Beirut before all of the guerrillas have pulled out, The Associated Press reported.
Tonight Israeli television quoted "senior sources in Jerusalem" as describing the proposals relayed by Habib as "one big deceit" by the PLO. The sources quoted were thought to be close to Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, and there was no confirmation of this view elsewhere in the Israeli government.
In an interview broadcast earlier today on Israeli radio, David Kimche, the director general of the Foreign Ministry, sounded a more cautiously optimistic note that others expressed privately.
"There has been certain movement, a movement in what could be the right direction," he said. "But the basic question is if they are sincere in this or not. This has not yet been answered."
Asked about reports that the Reagan administration is demanding that Israel agree to honor a two-week cease-fire to give Habib a chance to conclude negotiations, Kimche made no commitments on future Israeli military moves but said Israel would give Habib "all the time that he feels he needs" to arrange a political settlement.
The Israeli officials emphasized that they believed this week's Israeli military actions in West Beirut prompted the PLO to offer new concessions in the talks. This has been the main point of disagreement between President Reagan, who has called for strict adherence to the cease-fire to aid the Habib mission, and officials here, who argue that only increasing amounts of military pressure will prevent the PLO from prolonging the negotiations indefinitely.
Earlier this week, Prime Minister Menachem Begin sent Reagan what was described as an indirect but unmistakable rejection of the president's demand that Israeli forces pull back from the positions they captured in West Beirut this week.
The route of a PLO evacuation does not appear to be a major item of contention in the negotiations. A senior official here denied an assertion by an Israeli military spokesman in Lebanon yesterday that Israel would oppose a PLO land evacuation to Syria along the Beirut-Damascus highway.
While Israeli officials are opposed strongly to any two-stage evacuation plan that would allow the Palestinians to go first to some other part of Lebanon, they have not publicly made an issue of the route of an evacuation.
The Israelis have hinted at their willingness to accept a continued Syrian military presence in part of the Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon, which would in effect leave it to the Syrians to decide whether the PLO would also be allowed to remain in that part of the country.
In Tel Aviv, news agencies reported that several thousand Jews and Arabs were heckled and jostled as they marched through the city calling for Israel to withdraw from Lebanon.