At the invitation of President Reagan, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens and Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir will leave for Washington on Monday for meetings with U.S. officials on the situation in Lebanon, the Israeli Cabinet was told today.
Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who five days ago canceled his scheduled visit to Washington this week for "personal reasons," told the Cabinet that the invitation from the president was received this morning.
Coming so soon after the Begin cancellation, the invitation to the two other most senior ministers in the Israeli government appeared to underscore the importance the Reagan administration attaches to breaking the stalemate in Lebanon and ending the new round of violence that threatens to envelop the country.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Brian Carlson announced the invitation, and said: "In the wake of the postponement of Prime Minister Begin's visit, the president thought it would be useful to review the situation in the Middle East, including Lebanon."
"We can't sit and wait for a long time to discuss this issue," Cabinet secretary Dan Meridor said in announcing the Arens-Shamir trip.
Details of planned meetings in Washington were sketchy, but since the invitation came from the White House it was assumed that Arens and Shamir will meet with Reagan as well as Secretary of State George P. Shultz and other officials.
Last week, the president and his senior aides met with Lebanon's president, Amin Gemayel. One of the major topics at the meetings was Israel's decision to redeploy its forces in southern Lebanon. On Friday, at the conclusion of his last meeting with Gemayel, Reagan also announced that his personal envoy to the Middle East, Philip C. Habib, was being replaced by deputy national security affairs adviser Robert C. McFarlane.
Begin had been scheduled to meet with the president on Wednesday, climaxing a week of intensive activity by the administration to revive the diplomatic effort to achieve withdrawal of all foreign forces from Lebanon.
But last Tuesday Begin canceled his trip, and the next day he called a special Cabinet meeting that authorized the redeployment of Israeli forces in Lebanon, a step many fear could lead to the partition of Lebanon by Israel and Syria.
The details of the redeployment have not been set, but Israel's goal is to evacuate the southern outskirts of Beirut, the Beirut-Damascus highway and the Chouf Mountains southeast of Beirut, and to establish a new line for its troops along the Awwali River north of Sidon by November. This plan, however, depends on the ability and willingness of the Lebanese Army and possibly units of the multinational peace-keeping force in Beirut to take over the positions evacuated by the Israelis.
Israeli sources said that at today's Cabinet meeting some ministers expressed misgivings about Arens and Shamir coming under U.S. pressure to cancel or delay the redeployment plan and that Deputy Prime Minister David Levy suggested that the Reagan invitation be turned down to avoid that possibility.
Publicly, Israeli officials insist that the Reagan administration understands Israel's desire to redeploy its forces to presumably more defensible positions farther south, and, while not enthusiastic about the idea, is going along with it.
Despite these public assurances, Israeli officials appear wary of the administration's attitude toward the redeployment plan and its possible implications for Lebanon's future. This Israeli wariness has lent credence to speculation that among the "personal reasons" for the cancellation of the Begin visit was the prime minister's desire to avoid a potentially unpleasant round of discussions on the subject in Washington.
The new spurt of U.S. activity on Lebanon comes amid signs that the stalemate in that war-torn country is deepening. These include the prospect of the Israeli Army digging into new positions along the Awwali River for a second winter in Lebanon and the announcement on the weekend that Lebanese opponents of the Gemayel government had formed a Syrian-supported opposition front verging on an alternative government for Syrian-controlled parts of the country.
Moreover, while Gemayel was in Washington, fresh fighting between Christian and Druze factions erupted in Lebanon including heavy shelling of Beirut that left 17 dead.
The appointment of McFarlane as Reagan's new special envoy to the Middle East was greeted by officials here with praise mixed with considerable skepticism that he will be any more successful than Habib in gaining Syrian agreement to withdraw its forces from Lebanon--a condition for withdrawal of Israeli troops.
A Foreign Ministry statement praised Habib for "indefatigable work throughout the years of his service in our area" and said the government is "looking forward to working with Mr. McFarlane in our common search for peace and stability." Officials said McFarlane is expected to visit Israel next week.
Habib, the veteran diplomat who negotiated the agreement for the Palestine Liberation Organization's evacuation of Beirut last summer, was rebuffed in attempts to see Syrian officials about an overall troop withdrawal from Lebanon.
A senior Israeli official said he assumed that before McFarlane was appointed the administration received a commitment from Syria that he would be welcome in Damascus.
"This, after all, is why Habib had to quit," he said.
The official said that from prior experience the Israelis considered McFarlane "very able," but added that "this will certainly not affect the attitude of the Syrians" on a troop withdrawal.