The 17 May Agreement of 1983: A perfect failure

The final agreement explicitly stated that both Lebanon and Israel "recognise their right and obligation to live in peace with each other," thereby ending the state of war between them that had existed since 1948

The 17 May Agreement of 1983.
The 17 May Agreement of 1983.

The 17 May Agreement of 1983: A perfect failure

When Arab-Israeli peace agreements are mentioned, the main two that usually come to mind are Anwar Sadat’s Camp David Accords in 1978, followed by Yasser Arafat’s Oslo Accords of 1993.

What is generally dropped from the list is the 17 May Agreement between Lebanon and Israel, which although approved by the Lebanese parliament, never materialised.

In his 1998 book ‘Negotiating Arab-Israeli Peace’, Canadian historian Neil Caplan describes the agreement as a “perfect failure.”

And indeed, it was.

The Israeli army had invaded Lebanon in 1978 with the objective of driving out Yasser Arafat’s fighters. In June 1982 it laid siege and occupied Beirut.

Its invasion of Lebanese territory had been facilitated and nudged by the young Bashir Gemayel of the Lebanese Phalange, who abhorred Arafat and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO).

In fact, it was the skirmishes between them that had triggered the entire Lebanese conflict in mid-April 1975. Gemayel was elected president on 23 August and killed on 14 September 1982.

Sharon’s initial demands

His brother, Amin Gemayel, would replace him as president later that month and in his inauguration address, he, too, didn’t mention Israeli troop withdrawal from Lebanon.

A 18 May 1983 article in The New York Times says: “Much of the groundwork on the agreement was done last fall by Defence Minister Ariel Sharon...who met secretly with a still unidentified confidant of President Amin Gemayel and drew up a document outlining an accord.”

President of Lebanon Amin Gemayel (left) reads a statement outside the White House, December 1, 1983. Among those visible are US President Ronald Reagan (1911 - 2004) (second left) and Secretary of State George P Shultz.

Sharon, like Bashir Gemayel, hated Arafat and longed to see him dead. He demanded, among other things, limits on Lebanese weapons in the south and intelligence agents with the right to enter Lebanese homes and detain civilians in search of fighters from the PLO.

He also asked for five outposts in southern Lebanon manned by 750 Israeli soldiers, which was flatly rejected by the Lebanese.

Lebanon Beach talks

Official negotiations commenced at a hotel called Lebanon Beach in Khaldeh, a seaside town south of Beirut, on 28 December 1982. Representing Israel was David Kimche, a legendary Mossad figure and deputy chief who by then was serving as director-general of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

On the Lebanese side stood Antoine Fattal, a seasoned Lebanese diplomat of Syrian origins who had served as Lebanon’s former ambassador to the Vatican.

Mediating the talks and handling them from afar was US Secretary of State George Shultz and representing him at the negotiating table was his special envoy, Morris Draper.

Kimche (centre) with US chief delegate Morris Draper (R) and Lebanese negociator Antoine Fattal (L), after the three completed their marathon negotiations that produced the agreement between Israel and Lebanon to begin withdrawal.

President Gemayel was following up closely on every detail, although his prime minister Shafiq al-Wazzan mulled along, very unwillingly. Shortly before his death in 1999, he would later say that he cried on the day that the 17 May Agreement was signed.

Israeli withdrawal and establishment of security zone

The agreement’s final text called for a phased Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon, within 8-12 weeks, to be supervised by a joint committee from the two countries, headed the United States.

In return for full withdrawal, the Israelis demanded that the Lebanese army establish a security zone in southern Lebanon, 20-37 miles from Israel’s north, to keep Palestinian fighters away from the border area.

Talks between Israel, Lebanon and the UN Interim Force in Lebanon on the Israeli-Lebanese border.

The agreement called for a phased Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon. In exchange, the Lebanese army would establish a security zone in southern Lebanon to keep Palestinian fighters away from the border area. 

Israeli negotiator David Kimche made it clear to his Lebanese counterpart Antoine Fattal that the Israeli withdrawal would have to go hand-in-hand with that of both the PLO and the Syrian army. Fattal nodded affirmatively, without knowing how exactly that could be achieved.

Israeli soldiers in the captured Lebanese port city of Sidon during the Israeli army invasion named Operation Peace for the Galilee in Sidon, Lebanon, in June 1982.

The final agreement explicitly stated that both Lebanon and Israel "recognise their right and obligation to live in peace with each other," thereby ending the state of war between them that had existed since 1948.

The agreement did not establish diplomatic relations between Beirut and Tel Aviv, but it clearly did say that each country could, if it so wished, set up a liaison office in the other.

Senior Israeli diplomat Uri Lubrani was tasked with handling future talks with Lebanon. He was close to Mossad and had served as ambassador to Uganda and Ethiopia and head of mission to Iran prior to the Khomeini Revolution of 1979.

Two signing ceremonies took place for the 17 May Agreement. First was at the Lebanon Beach Hotel in Khaldeh after which all the delegates were flown by helicopter to the border city of Kiryat Shmona on the western slops of the Hula Valley, near the Lebanese borders. There, inside Israel, a second ceremony took place.   

Real challenge begins

Then the real challenge began: how to transform the agreement from paper to reality?

Lebanon was divided along a sharp fault line, with one side of the nation defending the agreement and another vowing that it will never pass. Within the Arab world, many were furious. Anger from Sadat's 1978 peace accords was still fresh in people's minds, and so were images of his assassination three years later.

Meeting between AnwarSadat and Menachem Begin on June 5, 1981 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt.

Much of its success required cooperation from Syria's president Hafez al-Assad, who was the only Arab leader with boots on the ground in Lebanon. George Shultz flew to Damascus to try and talk him into supporting the deal, but al-Assad refused, describing the document as "insulting."

Echoing his views were Libyan leader Mu'ammar Gaddafi, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, and of course, Yasser Arafat.

Parliament endorsement

Amin Gemayel went ahead with the agreement, regardless, sending it to parliament for debate on 13-14 June 1983. Seventy-two MPs were present: 3 of them abstained, 2 said no, and all the rest voted in favour. 

Amin Gemayel went ahead with the agreement, despite Hafez al-Assad's rejection, sending it to parliament for debate on 13-14 June 1983. Seventy-two MPs were present: 3 of them abstained, 2 said no, and all the rest voted in favour.

Looking through the list, its interesting to see prominent names who, in future years, would openly ally themselves to Hezbollah, like future president Elias Hraoui, in addition to expected supporters who had been pro-west their entire lives like former president Camille Chamoun and founder of the Lebanese Phalange Sheikh Pierre Gemayel, the father of presidents Bashir and Amin Gemayel.

Parliament Speaker Kamel al-As'ad did not vote, saying that as head of the chamber of deputies he ought to remain neutral, and people were divided on what he really thought of the agreement.

Those who abstained were Greek Catholic MP Albert Mansour, future parliament speaker and architect of the Taif Accords, Hussein al-Husseini, and former premier Rashid al-Solh. The two "no" were registered by Arabist MPs Zaher al-Khatib and Najah Wakim.

Opposition coalition forms

Outside the gates of parliament, however, a broad coalition was being formed to bring down the 17 May Agreement. Before the gates of the chamber stood Nabih Berri, then the 43-year-old leader of the Amal Movement who described the document as an agreement of "humiliation and scandal."

His allies were former president Suleiman Frangieh, representing the Maronite Christians, Walid Jumblatt representing the Druze, and ex-prime minister Rashid Karami, representing Sunni Muslims.

On 23 July 1983 they formed the National Salvation Front (NSF) in Baalbak and Ehden, gaining the support of heavyweight figures like ex-prime minister Takkiddine al-Solh and Mufti Hasan Khaled, who both also spoke out aggressively against the 17 May Agreement.

Then came the intifada of 6 February 1984, which was led mainly by Nabih Berri in what was then-called West Beirut. Massive demonstrations were staged all over Lebanon, which often led to violent clashes with the Lebanese army.

One young man was killed at the mosque of Bi'r al-Abed in southern Beirut, making it more difficult for Amin Gemayel to go ahead with the peace deal. Militants from the Amal Movement and Walid Jumblatt's Social Progressive Front stormed army units across the country, adding pressure on the state to abort the 17 May Agreement.

Then came the Mountain War in September 1983, which was triggered by the Lebanese Forces entered the Chouf district, provoking a bloody confrontation with Druze fighters loyal to Walid Jumblatt. It would last until September 1984, and it, too, was a direct result of the 17 May Agreement.

But it didn't end there.

One month after the Mountain War started, a truck loaded with 4,500 kg of explosives crashed through the front gate of the US Marine Barracks in Beirut.

It brought down the four-store building, killing 241 marines and sailors — the largest loss of life in one single day for the United States since World War II. 

This was 23 October 1983, five months after 17 May and six after a similar attack had struck at the American embassy, killing 17 Americans.

17 May was clearly not going to work. Nobody was willing to spill more blood for its sake. On 5 March 1984, the agreement was formally repudiated by the Lebanese government and, subsequently, by its own engineer, President Amin Gemayel.

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