U.S. special envoy Philip C. Habib met twice today with Israeli leaders here and appeared closer to reaching a final agreement on the peaceful evacuation of trapped Palestinian guerrillas from West Beirut.
Habib, who is to return to Beirut Monday, appeared to have succeeded in narrowing the number of unresolved details remaining between Israel, on the one side, and Moslem Lebanese and Palestine Liberation Organization leaders on the other. But there still appeared to be differences over how to verify the PLO departure and over the deployment of a multinational peace-keeping force to oversee the operation.
In Beirut, there was a lull in the fighting for the third straight day amid growing expectations among Palestinian and Lebanese leaders that an agreement finally might be near, Washington Post correspondent Loren Jenkins reported.
Habib's meetings with Prime Minister Menachem Begin, Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Defense Minister Ariel Sharon were sandwiched around an Israeli Cabinet session at which Israel's responses on the remaining issues in the negotiations were adopted.
The responses were not made public, but the Cabinet issued a five-point statement that offered the strongest indication yet that Israel would agree to allow the peace-keeping force to enter West Beirut at an early stage of the PLO withdrawal to oversee the evacuation.
The statement said that the entry of the force "will be in accordance with the plan" presented to Israeli government representatives, and a senior Israeli official said that the deployment issue "isn't a big problem anymore." The Cabinet did not spell out terms of the plan for the force, however.
The statement also called for safeguards to guarantee that all of the guerrillas and their Syrian allies would depart from the Lebanese capital. One official referred to this as a "verification" problem and said it is important to Israel because "we know they the PLO want to leave people behind" in Beirut.
Finally, the statement called for the return of the PLO's sole Israeli prisoner of war and the remains of nine Israeli soldiers missing in action in Lebanon.
There was no clear indication of how many details remained to be worked out before a final pact could be announced. Habib, emerging from the second session with Israeli leaders, told reporters, "I have pretty much done what I had to do." But the envoy maintained his practice of refusing to discuss details of his mission.
Uri Porat, Begin's press spokesman, said, "There are no new obstacles. The situation looks good."
Earlier in the day, Cabinet Secretary Dan Meridor said Israel hoped that the withdrawal agreement would be a reality by the end of the week. "We believe there is a prospect, although not for certain, that within this week an agreement for the departure of all the terrorists from Lebanon is feasible," he said.
Last week, Israel accepted "in principle" an evacuation plan crafted by Habib, but it laid down a number of conditions, including demands that it receive a complete listing of the Palestinians' names and their destinations in the Arab world and that international troops not be deployed until a majority of the guerrillas had withdrawn.
PLO officials have compiled a roster containing the number of guerrillas to be evacuated, broken down by destination, but have refused to provide a listing of names. Israeli officials stressed today that they are not interested in the names so long as there is a mechanism to account for all the guerrillas in West Beirut and ensure their departure from the city.
Israeli officials provided today their most complete breakdown to date of their estimate of the number of fighters trapped in West Beirut. The total is between 12,000 and 13,000, officials said, including 7,500 PLO guerrillas, 1,500 to 2,500 Syrian troops and the remainder troops of the Syrian-controlled Palestine Liberation Army. This does not appear to differ markedly from the PLO's own estimate of 12,000, contained in the roster it has compiled.
Israel's concern over the deployment of the multinational force stems from its fear that once the force is in place in Beirut it could serve inadvertently as a protective "screen" behind which at least some of the guerrillas could hide and attempt to remain in the capital.
Following his second meeting with Israeli leaders, Habib conferred alone with Defense Minister Sharon on the details of the multinational force deployment. Emerging from the meeting, Sharon said, "The problem is how to be completely convinced that the terrorists will not continue to act after the evacuation."
But even Sharon, who has been critical of the Habib mission and pessimistic about its chances for success, sounded an optimistic note. "We have been dealing with this, and I believe we are going to find a solution," he said.
Israeli radio reported today that Israel may accept a promise from the United States, France and Italy -- the countries that would supply troops to the multinational force -- that their forces would leave Beirut if the PLO does not complete the evacuation as promised.
The sources also said that Israel's strong objections to giving the United Nations any role in the evacuation plan in effect had been finessed by an agreement that the handful of U.N. personnel already in the city serve as the "symbolic presence" of the world organization.
In addition to these details, officials here reiterated their demand that the evacuation not begin until an Israeli pilot shot down early in the war is returned through the International Red Cross. Israel is also seeking to learn the fate of nine soldiers who are missing in action in the fighting this summer and during the 1978 Israeli invasion of Lebanon.
Military officials announced tonight that two Israeli soldiers were killed when a bomb in a car exploded east of Beirut yesterday. They also announced that Syrian authorities have notified the International Red Cross that Syria is holding two Israeli prisoners of war, and also has the body of an Israeli pilot who was killed when his plane was shot down over eastern Lebanon late last month.
The announcement marked the first time in the war that official word has been received on the fate of Israeli soldiers missing in action against the Syrians.
Israel's consumer price index rose 9.2 percent last month, bringing the inflation rate for the 12-month period ending July 30 to 130 percent, the government's Central Bureau of Statistics reported Sunday. The bureau denied that the invasion of Lebanon was a major factor, instead blaming the increase on price rises for food, transportation and health services, Reuter reported.
Correspondent Jenkins added the following from Beirut:
Many residents who had fled West Beirut for the Christian eastern sectors after the intensive Israeli aerial and artillery bombardments during the past two weeks began returning today.
Long lines of cars moved across the no man's land of the Galerie Semaan crossing point. Many residents came back just for the day to inspect the damage to their homes, while others sought to bring in fresh produce to friends and families.
Former Lebanese prime minister Saeb Salam, Habib's intermediary with PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, said he believed that Habib's mission to Jerusalem had progressed well. He emphasized, however, that until Habib returned Monday, he could not be sure just how close to a final agreement they were.
Salam said he does not think that Israeli demands for the return of the captured Israeli pilot would present a major problem. But he added that the pilot's return should be left for the International Red Cross to handle rather than be included as a condition in the Habib plan.
Jerusalem's insistence on the return of the remains of soldiers killed in the l978 Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon could prove more difficult. It is not clear here whether the PLO knows exactly where the Israeli soldiers were buried. In any case, PLO leaders said, the bodies almost certainly are interred somewhere in southern Lebanon, the area of the 1978 invasion, which today is occupied by Israeli forces.