A Political Memoir: What Happened Between Israel and Lebanon in 1983?

Published June 21st, 2020 - 12:52 GMT
If the matter remains unresolved, Lebanon considers itself free to consider the agreement as void.

The third episode of the memoirs of former Lebanese President Amin Gemayel, touches on the circumstances of signing the May 17, 1983 agreement between Lebanon and Israel, which sparked great controversy at that time.

“This was supposed to be the main event of my tenure," Gemayel says.

Lebanon was seeking, through the agreement, to guarantee the exit of the Israeli forces that entered the country after the 1982 invasion. But Israel tried to link its withdrawal to that of the Syrian forces, which Gemayel rejected, telling the United States: “Our negotiations are for the withdrawal of the Israeli army; as for the problem of the Syrian army, we solve it in cooperation with Arab countries.”

He recounts in his memoirs: “We almost concluded the final clauses of the May 17 agreement and prepared for it to be signed the next day, until a sudden event changed the whole situation at the last minute.”

“On May 16, the chairman of the US negotiating team, Maurice Draper, requested an urgent meeting. He informed me of the presence of an attached side letter, which the Israeli envoy asked the Americans to hand over to us. He said it was an integral part of the agreement. The letter, dated May 17, stipulated three new conditions that were not included in the agreed text,” Gemayel says.

The first condition was obtaining information about the Israeli soldiers who were missing during the Israeli operation in Lebanon, returning the captured soldiers held by Syria, as well as by the Palestine Liberation Organization (who were war prisoners), and recovering the remains of the soldiers who had fallen since the fourth of June 1982.

As for the second condition, Gemayel said it was about the withdrawal of all armed Palestinian elements from Lebanon, as well as that of the Syrian forces, in parallel with the exit of the Israeli forces. It should be noted that the withdrawal of armed Palestinian elements from Lebanon came in accordance with the references mentioned in this regard in Article 204 of the Treaty.

The third condition said that if the return of the captured soldiers and the forces’ withdrawal did not happen at the specified time, Israel reserved the right to suspend the implementation of the provisions of the treaty.

Gemayel recounts: “Maurice Draper told me: “I understand the frustration you feel, but we will not give up. Secretary [George] Schultz assures you of his support, and Washington will make every effort in Israel and Syria to resolve the situation. The positions of these two countries are not final. We have every reason to believe this.”

He continues: “I replied: “So I cannot move forward with the agreement. Our negotiations are for the withdrawal of the Israeli army from Lebanon, then the Arab countries will help us solve the problem of the Syrian army in our country with Damascus. ””

In light of this “side message”, one of the parties - Israel - granted itself in advance, the right to refrain from signing the treaty.

However, this legal heresy did not go unnoticed by the US Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, who went so far as to suspect the hypocrisy of his colleague, the Secretary of State. He will reveal, later, that, once he was informed of the existence of the attached secret letter, which was “accepted by Secretary of State George Shultz and apparently unknown to Amin Gemayel,” he understood the reasons for failure.

“The agreement, with its side message, gives President al-Assad the power to veto any withdrawal and any kind of good relations that Israel might establish with one of its Arab neighbors, Lebanon. In retrospect, this veto affected all US policy in the Middle East. Moreover, Syria will immediately benefit from it by not withdrawing from Lebanon,” he says.

Gemayel notes that shutting the door to the agreement meant deepening the country’s crisis and losing Washington’s support.

“Therefore, I once again opted for the adoption of a solution ‘on the Lebanese way’, which allows preserving our relations with the Americans while adhering to our basic rights: to give the Lebanese delegation permission to sign the agreement without conviction, of course, but with specific reservations formulated clearly in a strict Lebanese letter (side letter), also dated May 17, signed by Foreign Minister Elie Salem and addressed to the American ‘godfather’.”

The attached Lebanese letter stated the following: “Lebanon affirms that unless Israel withdraws [from the country] in line with the terms of the agreement, that it will dissolve it and suspend all of its obligations. Accordingly, Lebanon, the United States, and Israel will consult in this regard. If the matter remains unresolved, Lebanon considers itself free to consider the agreement as void. It will continue to seek the restoration of its sovereignty and the withdrawal of foreign powers from its lands in full by the available means.”

Gemayel recounts: “Upon our insistence, the United States agreed to the Lebanese position. President [Ronald] Reagan sent a third side message, also dated May 17.”

It read: “Based on the long relationship and friendship with Lebanon, the United States participated fully in reaching an agreement between it and Israel, and signed it as a witness. The United States will take all necessary measures to fully monitor the implementation of the agreement, and it supports the sovereignty, political independence, and territorial integrity of Lebanon. The United States will continue to support the goal of the Lebanese Republic in securing the withdrawal of all foreign forces. In the event that foreign forces fail to withdraw, the United States will conduct emergency consultations and take other steps that will properly lead to the exit of all these forces from Lebanon.”

The United States further recognized that Lebanon entered this agreement provided it was free to suspend the implementation of its obligations, in the event that the Israeli armed forces did not withdraw.

At the end of his letter, Reagan asserted that his administration would “push forward economic and military assistance at the request of Lebanon, and would support by appropriate means economic reconstruction in Lebanon and the development of its military forces in order to support the Lebanese government in carrying out its responsibilities.”

Despite all of that, the agreement was signed by the negotiating delegation on May 17, 1983, Gemayel said.

On June 13 and 14, Parliament convened in a session, during which a high degree of consensus and feeling of optimism manifested against all odds. The parliament ratified the agreement and approved it by a majority of 64 votes, against two opposing votes, four deputies abstaining, and one deputy expressing reservations.

“I was hoping that the agreement would win not only the overwhelming majority, but also the consensus so that our position would become stronger and safer towards the Arab countries, not to mention its national and constitutional dimensions,” he underlined.

“I realized the size of the obstacles ahead of me, and I have expressed my concerns openly to President Ronald Reagan through his representatives participating in signing the agreement. I was afraid, especially after being notified of the Israeli side message, that I had a poisoned document in my hands, and I wanted to anticipate the future at any cost.”

He continued: “I was wondering what causes the Hebrew state to put such pressure on us, and why the American administration would conclude an agreement that is born dead because of its side message. Israel buried this agreement before any other party on May 17 in particular, contrary to what some opponents of the treaty claimed… Israel dropped it through the side message, and I canceled it by not signing it.”

French Foreign Minister Claude Cheysson attributed the failure to Israel itself.

“When I asked him, when he visited Beirut on March 4, 1984, months after the Lebanese-Israeli agreement was frozen, how did he explain the behavior of the Hebrew state, he laughed and said: “According to our information, from the first day, Israel did not want the agreement. I also knew that we were a victim of Israeli maneuvers and scheme in which it used Lebanon for further purposes.”

The French minister explained: “Prior to the launch of Operation Peace of Galilee in June 1982, Israel informed Washington that the military invasion would be limited to 40 kilometers from the border between the two countries. But its army penetrated the capital, Beirut, which caused great anger in the American capital. By a very rare decision in the history of US-Israeli relations, Congress imposed heavy financial and military sanctions against it, including freezing an agreement between the two countries; so Israel needed an agreement with Lebanon, whatever it was, in order to justify the lifting of these sanctions by Congress… It announced the agreement in order to confirm its exit from Lebanon and then move away from those sanctions.”

Cheysson continued: “Indeed, after the signing, the sanctions were lifted, and that was probably the reason why the Jewish state first clung to it, and was careful to prevent us from abolishing it before Congress decided to lift the sanctions.”

The French minister also told Gemayel: “The Israelis are indifferent to what is happening to the Lebanese, and I hope your citizens will realize this. No one in Lebanon can count on Israel.”

Gemayel says: “The May 17, 1983 agreement was supposed to be the main event of my tenure, and I did my best to avoid traps, but could it have been otherwise? Could this failure have been avoided? I still ask myself this question more than ever, and more than anyone else. In any case, I refrained from giving the agreement an executive status, and it remained without the signature of the country’s president, that is, without an effect, as if it never happened.”

He concluded: “Over time, I realized that I took the right position by refusing to sign. Despite the slander campaigns against me, my conscience is relieved that I served my country at this critical stage in history, and saved it from devastating dangers.”

This article has been adapted from its original source.     

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