U.S. special envoy Philip C. Habib arrived here today and met with Lebanese President Amin Gemayel in an accelerated American effort to speed up negotiations for the withdrawal of Israeli soldiers from Lebanon.
There were unconfirmed reports here and in Tel Aviv that Habib had set Feb. 12 as a target date for beginning withdrawal of foreign forces.
Privately, however, Lebanese officials and western diplomats were not optimistic that the compromise yesterday on an agenda for the talks would lead to quick agreement.
Lebanon's state-run news agency, quoting an unidentified government spokesman, warned against "excessive optimism" over the agenda agreement, saying "long and difficult talks are still ahead and the Lebanese government will be hard-pressed to ensure the interests of Lebanon."
There was no word on what Habib and Gemayel discussed in their meeting. It was understood that Habib and his colleague Morris Draper were pressing both sides to hold daily sessions instead of the current twice-weekly talks, but there were no indications whether Israel, which reportedly resisted such proposals in the past, would agree to stepped-up talks now.
Moreover, there was the expectation that Israel's demands for a 27- to 30-mile-deep security zone in Lebanon, trade arrangements and the signing of some kind of agreement for mutual relations between the two countries would be difficult issues to resolve.
The U.S.-inspired compromise for a "composite agenda," including all of the key items that both sides wanted to discuss, skirted rather than solved the problems that had stalled the negotiations.
"Everyone is going to read into the agenda what he's predisposed to read into it," said one western diplomat.
Israel dropped its original demand that "normalization of relations" between the two countries be on the agenda. Lebanon had feared that its acceptance of such an agenda item would bring a violent reaction from fellow Arab nations. The issue of future ties is expected to remain a contentious one in the negotiations.
There were also strong concerns among western diplomats and Lebanese about the still vaguely described Israeli proposal for a security zone in southern Lebanon--roughly the same area now being held by occupying Israeli soldiers.
"This is the first time in eight years of war and civil strife that I have big fears for Lebanon's geography," said one Moslem commentator.
Similar fears were being raised today by residents of Christian East Beirut, who had been grateful to the Israelis for their operations against armed Palestinians and had expressed the hope that Israel would stay in the country until Syrians occupying northern and eastern Lebanon leave.
Elsewhere, there were concerns that the demands for security arrangements might go beyond protecting northern Israel from attacks to a desire by the Israeli government to monitor activities in Syria.
The Lebanese government complained to U.S. officials yesterday that Israel had already constructed a sophisticated early warning radar system and some telecommunications stations from an outpost in the central mountains of Lebanon.
The government of Syrian President Hafez Assad, which had threatened reprisals if Lebanon made concessions to Israel that it did not like, issued mild warnings again today.
A commentary on government-run Damascus radio said both the United States and Israel were trying to "draw Lebanon's future by force." But the radio's reports, as well as those of pro-Syrian newspapers here, highlighted the fact that the agenda was not binding on the outcome of negotiations, a concession won by Lebanon.
There was strong concern about the issues of open borders and trade that are on the agenda, and intellectuals here found ominous the agenda, topic, "Ending of hostile propaganda," fearing this could mean censorship on Lebanon's lively, traditionally unfettered press.
Reuter added the following:
Gemayel telephoned Syrian President Assad today to discuss the outcome of the latest round of talks with Israel, official sources said.
Gemayel told the Syrian leader he was sending special envoy Jean Obeid to Damascus Saturday to discuss the negotiations, the sources said. The two leaders also discussed the situation in the northern port of Tripoli, where a six-day-old cease-fire between rival pro- and anti-Syrian factions was threatened today by a shooting incident in which one person was killed and two injured, including a Syrian soldier.