The State Department, encouraged by special envoy Morris Draper's quick recovery from an illness, said yesterday it still expects Israel and Lebanon to begin direct talks within the next few days on withdrawal of foreign forces from Lebanon and creation of security arrangements near Israel's northern border.
Department spokesman John Hughes said Draper, who suffered a kidney ailment in London on Monday while en route to the Middle East, is "on the mend" and is expected to resume his trip to the region by the weekend.
On Monday, reporters who accompanied Secretary of State George P. Shultz to Canada were told that, following recent meetings here with Israeli Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Lebanese President Amin Gemayel, the two governments have agreed to start negotiations, with U.S. participation, on specific measures for getting foreign forces out of Lebanon.
However, Hughes cautioned yesterday that these "specifics" still must be worked out and that much bargaining lies ahead to achieve "a detailed operational plan of withdrawal."
He noted that a mechanism for negotiations already exists in the contacts that have been established between the Lebanese army and Israeli military liaison groups in Lebanon. "Now it's up to Israel and Lebanon, once Draper gets there, to decide how to follow up," Hughes said.
"Right now, everybody seems to be on their first positions," he noted in stressing that the talks are in a very preliminary stage.
Israel has insisted that Palestine Liberation Organization fighters in northern Lebanon must leave the country and that a security zone be established in southern Lebanon before it will agree to simultaneous withdrawals of its forces and those of Syria. Lebanon, while calling for the Israelis to leave, has been reluctant to commit itself to any conditions.
Hughes, while saying that "some kind of phased withdrawal seems indicated," insisted that the United States does not have a specific position to put forward at this time. "We want to be helpful," he said, "and we're working for the speediest possible total withdrawal . . . . "
Other U.S. officials said privately that the administration has worked out several tentative negotiating proposals and has instructed Draper to watch how the talks go and then formulate specific ideas for overcoming any snags he detects. In that way, these officials said, a concrete U.S. plan should evolve over the next few weeks.
Hughes also acknowledged that there is no agreement at this time on drawing Syria into the talks, even indirectly. However, he said that Draper is expected to visit Damascus shortly to explore ways of handling the Syrian and PLO aspects of the withdrawal problem.
The Pentagon announced yesterday that the 1,800 American Marines in Beirut as part of the multinational peace-keeping force will be replaced shortly by fresh Marine units that left their bases in Naples, Italy, on Monday night. The announcement said the replacement of those Marines who went into Beirut on Sept. 29 was part of a normal rotation schedule, and that they will return to this country by late November.
The duration of the U.S. military presence in Lebanon is still open-ended, and there has been speculation that the multinational force might be redeployed to perform other duties outside of Beirut. Hughes said yesterday: "As operational plans for a withdrawal evolve, there may or may not be a need for a new role for the MNF and there may or may not be a need to enlarge it."