Negotiations between Israel and Lebanon will begin Tuesday in Lebanon and continue on Thursday in the northern Israeli town of Qiryat Shemona, the Israeli Cabinet announced today.
Beirut state radio also reported that the talks were expected to begin Tuesday, although the Lebanese government did not issue an official statement.
The two sides continued their posturing over the subjects to be discussed. Lebanese officials were quoted as stressing that the negotiations were aimed at obtaining the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Lebanon, while the Israelis said that the talks also would cover normalizing relations between the two countries and creating a security zone in southern Lebanon to prevent cross-border attacks into Israel.
Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon said in an interview broadcast in the United States that a working paper prepared by both sides also includes a proposal to retain a "warning station" staffed by Israelis in southern Lebanon.
[Sharon, interviewed via satellite on "This Week with David Brinkley" (ABC, WJLA), said, "The most important thing is not to stand with a stopwatch and ask all the time, 'When are you (the Israelis) withdrawing?' but to try and see what would be the very best security arrangement."]
The start of the negotiations has been delayed for weeks as the two sides argued over where the talks would take place, who would represent each country and what topics would be considered. The format for the talks still has not been announced, and it remains unclear what role, if any, will be played by the United States.
The Israeli Cabinet did not specify the site of the first meeting, apparently because the planned location in the town of Khaldah on the southern outskirts of Beirut is near the scene of fierce fighting in recent days between Christian Phalangist and Moslem Druze militias. The first meeting is still expected to take place there, however, in a beach hotel.
Lebanese radio stations said sporadic shelling resumed Sunday around Khaldah after a lull in the morning, but Lebanese sources said the talks would begin there Tuesday anyway, Reuter reported. President Amin Gemayel told the Army to complete security arrangements in Khaldah.
[In the port city of Sidon, Israeli radio said, an explosion rocked the Falangist Party headquarters, but the building was empty and no one was injured, according to Reuter.]
In announcing the planned start of the negotiations, Cabinet Secretary Dan Meridor denied charges by Lebanese Prime Minister Shafiq Wazzan that Israel was attempting to impose "unacceptable" new conditions even before the talks had begun.
Meridor said the Israeli position has not changed since Dec. 19, when the Cabinet approved what was described as a three-page document of understanding setting out the topics to be discussed and containing agreement in principle on some of them.
According to the Israeli version of the understanding, the talks are to cover normalization of relations and the planned security zone, and Israeli officials have said there will be no troop withdrawal without agreements on these two issues. The Lebanese have indicated, however, that they are reluctant to become the only Arab country other than Egypt to establish normal ties with the Jewish state.
The talks also are linked to a separate set of negotiations aimed at gaining withdrawal of Syrian and Palestinian troops from Lebanon. Israel has said that it will not withdraw its troops unless the Palestinians leave the country first and Syria agrees to withdraw at the same time as Israel.
Sharon announced more than a week ago that the document of understanding had been approved by the Lebanese, and he characterized it as a "breakthrough" in the negotiating stalemate. At today's Cabinet meeting, Sharon reportedly was criticized by some other Cabinet ministers for jeopardizing the negotiations by making a premature announcement and taking credit for the "breakthrough."
Sharon visited Beirut Thursday in an apparent attempt to see that the negotiations did not hit any last-minute snags. According to press reports today, Sharon failed to obtain the signature of Lebanese officials on the document of understanding but did receive private assurances that it would form the basis for the negotiating sessions.
There were also reports, however, that the document, which has never been made public, has undergone several changes since Sharon and other Israeli officials initially negotiated it with unidentified Lebanese officials.
Asked about recent remarks by Wazzan suggesting that Lebanon would attempt to limit the negotiations to the troop withdrawal question, Meridor said the document setting out the broader agenda was reached with "authorized Lebanese" officials and that Israel expected them to live up to all of its provisions.
"I suggest we wait a few days and see what we're talking about," he said.
The negotiating schedule beyond the two meetings set for this week was not announced. Israeli officials have said that they expect the first sessions to be relatively brief and to be followed by consultations among officials of the two governments in Beirut and Jerusalem.