111. Telegram From the Embassy in Israel to the Department of State1

7195. White House for Dr. Brzekinski only. Subj: South Lebanon: Presidential Message. Ref: State 230417.2

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Summary: I saw Begin at 1000 September 24 and delivered the President’s letter. The Prime Minister read it carefully and, as I had anticipated, said he would have to consult his Cabinet colleagues before giving a definite response. He reviewed the importance of the ceasefire preceding or following closely the withdrawal of Israeli forces in order to minimize the risk to the Christians and the likelihood of further attacks on Israeli towns in the north. He argued that Israeli actions have been entirely defensive and therefore no grounds exist for finding Israel has violated the terms of any agreement regarding the use of U.S.-supplied weapons. I pushed him very hard on the need for urgent withdrawal of Israeli forces from Lebanon and he finally agreed to convoke a meeting tonight of the Ministerial Security Committee. He asked that the President be informed of his interim reply that Israel agrees to withdraw its forces, the timing to be decided at tonight’s Cabinet meeting. End summary.

1. I met with Begin at the Prime Minister’s residence in Jerusalem at 1000 hours on September 24. He was alone. I said the President understood the importance of the Sabbath to the Prime Minister and it was only because of the urgency of my message that I had been instructed to see him this morning. I then handed him the President’s letter.

2. Begin read the letter carefully and said he wanted to thank the President for communicating with him directly on such an important subject. He said he would have to consult with his colleagues before giving a definite response and this would be delayed because of the Sabbath. He reminded me that some members of the Cabinet would not even talk on the telephone on the Sabbath. There will be a Cabinet meeting tomorrow at 1000 and he would perhaps convene a meeting of the Security Committee at 0900. He then reviewed familiar Israeli arguments about the commitment to the outnumbered and outgunned Christians and added that recent rocket attacks on Israeli towns confirm the correctness of the Israeli opposition to PLO forces on Israeli borders. Israel must, therefore, continue to stress the importance of the question of the timing between any Israeli withdrawal and the coming into force of a ceasefire. A withdrawal cannot be used by the PLO to attack Christian forces or to resume rocket attacks against Israel.

3. I replied that the rocket attacks could be seen as retaliation for what the Palestinians perceive to be the provocation of Israeli forces in Lebanon. In any case, the GOL maintains that Israeli forces must be withdrawn prior to any ceasefire; it cannot persuade the Palestinians to hold their fire while Israeli forces are in Lebanon. The central point [Page 568] emerging from our discussions with the GOL is that the first step must be the prompt and complete withdrawal of Israeli forces.

4. Begin said he understood that from the President’s message but he remained concerned about how to be responsive to the President because of the Sabbath and his inability to decide the issue without talking to his Cabinet colleagues. I said again that the USG believes that the sooner Israeli forces are withdrawn, the greater the chances are that the rocket attacks will cease and the better the chances are that the Lebanese can restrain the Palestinians. I repeated that he must understand there can be no ceasefire until Israeli forces are totally withdrawn and that the longer they remain in Lebanon, the greater the risk of escalation. I said I had clearly understood from Weizman last night that only the Prime Minister had the authority to modify the Security Committee’s decision of yesterday morning and order an immediate withdrawal. The Palestinians would not agree to a ceasefire until the withdrawal took place.

5. Begin said he was not sure he had authority to override a decision by a Cabinet committee and that he must consult his colleagues, which he could not do until tomorrow. He then turned to the question I had raised of provocation and from that to the question of a possible violation by Israel of its agreement with us on U.S.-supplied arms. He said categorically that no Israeli soldiers participated in the recent Christian military action although those actions were supported by Israeli artillery. If Israeli forces leave, however, a PLO counterattack would probably be successful because PLO reinforcements have arrived in the area from the north. For this reason, Israel cannot leave without a ceasefire being in effect.

6. The Prime Minister said he was deeply disturbed by the reference in the President’s letter to a possible violation by the recent action. If Israel had attacked its neighbors, such language would be justified. This was not the case; no Israeli forces had been involved in offensive activities and all Israeli moves had been in defense of the Christians. The Israeli view is that no attack had been carried out and thus no violation of our agreement has occurred.

7. I replied that the longer Israeli forces are in Lebanon, the more difficult it becomes for the President to handle this point, on which he is bound by very specific legislation. On the basis of substantial evidence it is our judgment that Israeli forces were a party to an attack outside Israeli borders. The Israeli force involved in Lebanon has been much larger and the support of the Christians has been substantially greater in recent days than in any past action. The degree of Israeli involvement in what unequivocally is an offensive action is so great that we can no longer look the other way. The implications of Israeli actions during the past week held grave consequences for our relations.

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8. Summing up, I said several problems are interrelated: working out the timing of a ceasefire, assuring the cessation of rocket attacks and other Palestinian acts which might be carried out in retaliation, and the complications such actions by both sides would have for the implication of the Shtaura Accord. I said we were not asking the Israelis to agree to the Accord, but only to give the Lebanese a chance to implement it and thus provide some stability to the area through the withdrawal of the bulk of the Palestinian forces and their weapons. The Minister of Defense had forcefully explained to me the Israeli moral commitment to the Christians and to the thirty Christian militiamen holding the hill. But I said that in my judgment the Prime Minister as a statesman must balance that commitment along with all the other considerations I had cited and decide whether their presence on a single hilltop was worth risking the long range stability of Lebanon. I admired Israel’s sense of moral commitment to these men. Since it was so great, and since he was so concerned about their safety after an Is-raeli withdrawal, then he must seriously consider ordering their withdrawal at the same time. In any case, I reminded him, Tel Shar-ifa and most of the rest of the territory involved in the past week’s hostilities would revert to the Christians if the Shtaura Accord was implemented.

9. Begin got up and went over and poured us whiskey and, raising his glass, said he would do the following: he would convene the Security Committee at 1900 hours tonight. In the meantime, he asked me to send his interim response to the President: Israel agrees to withdraw its forces from Lebanon. The meeting tonight will consider the question of the timing of that withdrawal and Weizman will telephone me with the results of the Committee’s meeting, probably about 2000 hours local. He said he would do his best to expedite the decision since he understood the urgency of the situation. I asked that he reconfirm to me that Israel will do all in its power to ensure that the Christian forces also observe the ceasefire. He gave his assurances. In turn he asked that I immediately convey to him or Weizman any information we may receive during the course of the day on the status of Lebanese and/or Syrian consultations with the Palestinians concerning the ceasefire. He said this would be helpful to him in persuading his Cabinet colleagues tonight of the need for an immediate Israeli withdrawal.

10. Comment: I sense that only about half way through our conversation did the full import of the President’s letter begin to sink in. I left a very sober Prime Minister who is clearly disturbed over the implications for U.S.-Israeli relations of events of the past week. Consequently [Page 570] I am optimistic that we are within hours of a GOI decision leading to a unilateral Israeli withdrawal.3

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Middle East File, Subject File, Box 48, Israel: 9/77. Secret; Niact Immediate; Exdis Treat as Nodis. Also sent niact immediate to Amman, Beirut, and Damascus.
  2. See Document 110.
  3. At 9:30 a.m. on September 26, Israel’s Ministry of Defense announced a cease-fire in Southern Lebanon. The Ministry’s announcement also stated that “to maintain the ceasefire in the South Lebanon region, the regular Lebanese Army will move into the region and maintain control over the area by means of patrols and outposts in order to ensure the calm and the safety of the inhabitants.” (Telegram 7284 from Tel Aviv, September 26; National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D770349–1221)