DAMASCUS, Syria — Key details began to emerge Monday of the separate, and in some ways competing, American and French plans for a cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah--and they help explain why it is taking so long to stop the fighting.
The French plan goes much further toward accommodating the interests of Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed militia operating in southern Lebanon, than does the American plan. The United States and Israel do not like the French proposals, but the Lebanese and Syrian governments appear to be taking them seriously.
Syrian President Hafez Assad, in particular, may be flirting with the French plan to increase pressure on Israel to make concessions on the return of the Golan Heights to Syria.
The major differences between the French and American plans are over the following issues:
* What sort of protection, if any, will be provided to Israeli security forces in southern Lebanon.
* Whether and how soon Israeli forces might withdraw from Lebanon.
* How and with what personnel peace in southern Lebanon will be preserved once it is finally restored.
Under the American plan, as it was originally conceived, Israeli forces would get greater protection from Hezbollah attacks than they have had before. But under the French proposal, the Israeli forces would get no more protection than they have had in the past and would be required to withdraw from Lebanon within a fixed, relatively short period.
For days, as Secretary of State Warren Christopher has conducted intensive shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East, U.S. officials have said nothing about the provisions of the American cease-fire plan, saying that disclosure of its details might jeopardize the ongoing negotiations.
But a senior French official outlined the differences between the U.S. plan and the one being circulated throughout the Middle East by French Foreign Minister Herve de Charette.
Clinton administration officials, who have been publicly polite but privately furious about the independent French diplomacy, refuse to discuss the details of the two plans.
"We believe that having one channel [for negotiations on a cease-fire in Lebanon] is critical to the success of this negotiation," State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said Monday. He refused to release details of the American proposal.
U.S. officials rejoiced when Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny M. Primakov returned to Moscow late Monday after meetings with Assad. But as Christopher was preparing to leave Damascus on Monday, De Charette arrived here again, fresh from a meeting Sunday night with Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres and preparing for further talks with Assad.
As outlined by the French official, the United States is seeking promises that Hezbollah will restrain its military operations aimed at Israel's self-styled "security zone" in southern Lebanon. That would prevent attacks on Israeli military forces and on the South Lebanon Army, set up and backed by Israel.
The French proposal would halt Hezbollah attacks only on northern Israel. It would, in effect, give legitimacy to Hezbollah's argument that the Israeli military units on Lebanese soil are an outside occupation force and should not be guaranteed protection from Hezbollah.
Another important difference between the two plans is in how to guarantee that the cease-fire is preserved.
France--once the colonial power governing Lebanon--is offering to send French civilians or even troops to southern Lebanon as part of an international monitoring committee to keep the peace. Under the French proposal, Israel would be barred from retaliating against any offense in southern Lebanon without first going to this international committee.
Together with France, the United States would be one of the leaders of such a committee. But Clinton administration officials have made it plain they have no intention of sending American troops to keep the peace in southern Lebanon.
France is also proposing a target of the end of this year for completing a peace settlement between Israel and Lebanon that would pave the way for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Lebanon. French officials argue that such a short-term deadline would be an incentive to Hezbollah to accept a cease-fire this week.
U.S. officials have said they want to negotiate a peace settlement between Israel and Lebanon, but the American plan apparently does not set any quick time limit for Israeli withdrawal.
An Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon "is not part of what we are trying to do this week," Burns said Monday.
Despite the differences, the American and French proposals have some similarities.