The Israeli government, under intense pressure from the United States, called off the aerial bombardment of West Beirut late today and stripped Defense Minister Ariel Sharon of the freedom he has exercised to order air strikes on the besieged Lebanese capital.
The decision came during what was described as a particularly stormy Cabinet meeting at which Sharon was criticized severely by Prime Minister Menachem Begin for ordering today's 10-hour bombing, one of the fiercest Israeli attacks on the city since the war began.
Israeli sources said the Cabinet ordered a halt to air attacks on Beirut except with prior, specific authorization from Begin. That in effect denies Sharon the authority that Begin and the Cabinet had allowed him to decide how Israel would respond to what it considers cease-fire violations by Palestine Liberation Organization forces trapped in the city.
The decision to halt the bombing came amid threats by President Reagan to call off the mission of U.S. special envoy Philip C. Habib, which has been described here as on the verge of success, to arrange a peaceful evacuation of the PLO guerrillas.
Reagan's threat was delivered to Begin by U.S. Ambassador Samuel W. Lewis this afternoon and was reiterated in two telephone conversations between the president and the prime minister later in the day.
Even before the American threat, there was agitation for an emergency Cabinet meeting by some government ministers, who awoke this morning to news reports that Israeli planes had begun bombing West Beirut at 6 a.m.
The Israeli assault came after statements yesterday by Begin, Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Sharon that an agreement was near on a peaceful resolution of the crisis.
Sharon, however, never has appeared enthusiastic about Habib's diplomatic efforts and in recent days has mounted an increasingly open campaign against the American envoy's mission. Last weekend, for example, aides to Sharon told Israeli journalists that Habib was conspiring with the French to allow the Palestinians to remain in Beirut, Israeli sources said.
But in ordering today's air strikes, which were accompanied by naval and artillery shelling, Sharon may have overplayed his hand, in the view of some observers. Informed government sources described the Cabinet meeting as unusually bitter even by the rough-and-tumble standards of Israeli politics and said that Sharon was virtually isolated among his Cabinet colleagues.
Even Begin joined in sharply criticizing Sharon, the sources said, reminding him of the fate of Ezer Weizman, another politically ambitious defense minister who was forced out of office by Begin in 1980.
Israeli radio quoted Begin as telling Sharon, "Once and for all it should be clear who runs the affairs of state."
A statement issued by Begin's office tonight said President Reagan called at 5:30 p.m. (11:30 a.m. EDT) to "request" a cease-fire and that the prime minister told him the Cabinet had ordered a halt to the air strikes earlier in the day.
Begin then verified with military officials that all firing had stopped in Beirut and called Reagan to relay this information, the statement said. It added that the president expressed his gratitude and ended the conversation with the words, "Menachem, shalom."
Israeli military authorities announced tonight that 22 Israeli soldiers were wounded in the Beirut area yesterday and last night, and that one soldier was killed and 10 were wounded during the fighting today. The officials also said that during last night's fighting Israeli forces advanced on the ground, capturing several houses in West Beirut that allegedly were used as firing positions by the PLO.
Meanwhile, officials here reported little progress on the remaining issues in the negotiations for a Palestinian withdrawal. Begin, speaking during a parliamentary debate over the conduct of the war, said "great progress" had been made in the negotiations. But he added that during more than three hours of meetings with Habib here yesterday, he had told the American diplomat that Israel would not accept the presence of U.N. cease-fire observers in Beirut as part of the withdrawal plan. Other Israeli officials described this as a nonnegotiable position.
Begin also explicitly objected to a proposal that a small contingent of French troops enter Beirut just prior to or simultaneously with the start of the PLO evacuation.
Citing French support for a U.N. resolution calling for sanctions against Israel because of the war in Lebanon and what he termed a wave of anti-Semitism in France, Begin said, "Israel has the right to tell its French friends to stay at home."
The multinational force that is to oversee the evacuation is to be composed of 800 French troops, 800 U.S. Marines, and 400 Italian troops, buttressed by regular Lebanese Army units.
The United States is pressing the Israelis to accept deployment of a small contingent of the force as the evacuation begins in order to satisfy the PLO's demand for some form of protection when the guerrillas begin to pull out of Beirut. Israel publicly has opposed deployment of any multinational force units until more than half the guerrillas have left the city.
Yesterday, informed sources here said Begin had told Habib that Israel might accept deployment of some units "at an early stage" of the evacuation, but not prior to its beginning. The Israelis have suggested that these units be Lebanese or American, and there was speculation here today that the Italians might emerge as the compromise candidate. Begin's attitude in his speech today seemed to indicate that he would accept anybody but the French.
Israel's opposition to U.N. cease-fire observers did not appear to have softened as a result of Habib's visit to Jerusalem yesterday.
According to Israeli officials, the French are seeking a "U.N. link" by insisting that deployment of the multinational force carry United Nations approval, if only symbolically. The French see the presence of U.N. cease-fire observers in Beirut with the multinational force as such a symbolic link, the officials said.
Israel objects to this, according to the officials, not only because it considers the United Nations to be an anti-Israeli body but because of uncertainty over how long the U.N. personnel would stay in Beirut.
The U.N. Security Council last week authorized the deployment of cease-fire observers in the city in a resolution that was bluntly rejected by the Israeli government. Israeli forces around Beirut also have prevented a convoy of U.N. observers from entering the city.
Israeli officials said that while under the Habib plan the multinational force is to leave Beirut after 30 days regardless of developments, there is no such time limit in the U.N. resolution.
"That's why we don't want them," an official said. "There is no new mandate for them. We don't want any interference from the United Nations."
Habib, who returned to Beirut from here yesterday, may travel back to Jerusalem later this week. The American envoy has yet to meet an Israeli demand that he supply Israel with a detailed list of the names of the Palestinian guerrillas to be evacuated and their destinations in the Arab world, although he seems clearly to have satisfied Jerusalem that he can produce such a list soon.