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Ronald Reagan Administration: Press Conference on Israeli Invasion of Lebanon

(June 30, 1982)

Q. Mr. President, there are some who say that by failing to condemn the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and refusing to cut off arms to the invading armies, the United States and Israeli policies have become-and goals have become identical. If there's a difference, what is it?

Also, is there a difference between the Soviet slaughter of Afghans, which the United States has condemned so often, and the killing of Lebanese and the displaced people of Palestine? If so, what's the difference?

The President. Helen, you've asked a question that—or several questions that I have to walk a very narrow line in answering.

There's no question but that we had hoped for a diplomatic settlement and believed there could have been a diplomatic settlement in the Middle East, in that situation. We were not warned or notified of the invasion that was going to take place. On the other hand, there had been a breaking of the cease-fire, which had held for about 11 months in that area.

I think there are differences between some of these things that are going on and things like just the outright invasion of Afghanistan by a foreign power determined to impose its will on another country. We have a situation in Lebanon in which there was a force, the PLO, literally a government within a government and with its own army. And they had pursued aggression themselves across a border by way of rocket firing and artillery barrages. But the situation is so complicated and the goals that we would like to pursue are what are dictating our conduct right now.

We want the bloodshed to end; there's no question about that. We didn't want it to start. But we've seen Lebanon for 7 years now divided into several factions, each faction with its own militia, not a government in control. We have seen, as I've said, this PLO, and we've seen the invasion of other forces, the presence of the Syrians, as well, in Lebanon.

Right now, our goals are—as for the first time in 7 years the Lebanese seem to be trying to get together, and their factions have come together seeking a way to have a central government and have control of their own country and to have a single Lebanese army. That is one of the goals we would like to see. The other goal would be the guaranteeing of the southern border with Israel, that there would be no longer a force in Lebanon that could, when it chose, create acts of terror across that border. And the third goal is to get all the foreign forces—Syrians, Israelis, and the armed PLO—out of Lebanon. And we're—

Q. A lot of people have been displaced in Palestine.

The President. Yes, and I signed a bill this morning for $50 million in aid for Lebanon there, where several hundred thousand of those Palestinians are. I don't think they were all displaced from one area, and they have been refugees now into ongoing generations.

I think—when I say PLO, one has to differentiate between the PLO and the Palestinians. And out of this, also, we have another goal—and it's been our goal for quite some time—and that is to, once and for all, when these other things are accomplished-once and for all, to deal with the problem of the Palestinians and settle that problem within the proposals and the suggestions that were made in the Camp David accords.

Q. Mr. President, what steps are you prepared to take if Israel resumes fighting in Lebanon, moves in on the PLO and West Beirut. And what is the United States prepared to do for the Palestinians, whose legal rights you apparently told President Mubarak of Egypt the U.S. supports?

The President. This is a question, again, where I have to beg your tolerance of me. With the delicacy of the negotiations that are going on in the—trying to achieve those three major points that I mentioned-there's just no way that I can comment on or speculate about what might happen, because I don't want anything that might in any way affect those negotiations, all of which involve the very things that you're asking about. And I just have to remain silent on those.

Q. Mr. President, many Arab States are saying that if Israel invades Beirut—West Beirut, it can only be because you have given Israel a green light to do so. Have you done so? Will you? And what will be your attitude if Israel goes into West Beirut?

The President. Sam, again this is the type of question in which, with the negotiations at the point they are, that I can't answer.

I would like to say this: No, I've given no green light whatsoever. And an impression that I know some of the neighboring states there have had from the beginning is that somehow we were aware of this and we gave permission or something. No, we were caught as much by surprise as anyone, and we wanted a diplomatic solution and believe there could have been one.

Q. But, sir, if I may, last week your Deputy Press Secretary said that when Prime Minister Begin was here, he promised you that Israel would go no further into Beirut.

The President. I think also—his not having heard the conversation between Prime Minister Begin and myself—that what he called a promise actually was in a discussion in which, to be more accurate, the Prime Minister had said to me that they didn't want to and that they had not wanted to from the beginning.

Q. Mr. President, some Israeli officials have acknowledged in recent days the use of cluster bombs in the war in Lebanon. How much does this concern you?

The President. It concerns me very much, as the whole thing does. And, Judy, we have a review going now, as we must by law, of the use of weapons and whether American weapons sold there were used offensively and not defensively. And that situation is very ambiguous. The only statement that we've heard so far with regard to the cluster bomb was one military official—Israeli military official-has apparently made that statement publicly, and we know no more about it than what we ourselves have read in the press. But the review is going forward and the review that would lead to what the law requires, that we must inform the Congress as to whether we believe there was a question of this being an offensive attack or whether it was in self-defense.

When I said "ambiguous," you must recall that prior to this attack Soviet-built rockets and 180-millimeter cannon were shelling villages across the border in Israel and causing civilian casualties.

Sources: Public Papers of the President