U.S. Israel Exchanging Notes over Lebanon Air Battle

Premier Menachem Begin and his aides were reportedly at work this morning drafting a formal written reply to an American note on the air battle between Israeli and Syrian jets over south Lebanon yesterday. The note was delivered to Begin personally by U.S. Ambassador Samuel Lewis late last night. Its contents were not disclosed but the assumption in political circles here is that it expressed the U.S. Administration’s disquiet and concern over the aerial dogfight in which Israel employed, among other aircraft, highly sophisticated F-15 jets acquired from the U.S.

Israeli officials are believed to be especially concerned by the State Department’s comment yesterday that Israel’s use of American-made aircraft “has been of serious concern to us and to members of Congress.” Observers here believe Israel will seek to persuade the U.S. that the air battle was part of a defensive operation inasmuch as it occurred when Syrian jets attempted to intervene against Israeli air strikes at terrorist strongholds in south Lebanon. Israel claims that its policy of hitting terrorist targets in Lebanon is an act of “self-defense” against terrorist assaults from Lebanon on Israeli civilians.

BEGIN’S OFFICE ISSUES STATEMENT

The Prime Minister’s Office issued a statement later today saying that “The Prime Minister told the U.S. Ambassador that what Israel had done amounted to an act of legitimate self-defense.” The statement said. “We did not want to fight the Syrian. Air Force. But as the Syrian pilots said on television last night, they had received orders to shoot down Israeli aircraft. We cannot accept a decision like that.” According to other sources, Begin told Lewis after reading the note handed him by the American envoy, that “we did not want that encounter” and that it was “the Syrian command that ordered it to interfere with Israel’s legitimate action…. Israel is protecting its women and children.” The nature of Israel’s formal reply to Washington was not known. It was learned that the American message was signed by Secretary of State Cyrus Vance. Lewis had some difficulty locating Begin. When told that the Premier was at graduation exercises at a school attended by his granddaughter, Lewis rushed to the school and met with the Premier in the headmaster’s office. Meanwhile, Israeli artillery was in action again this morning against terrorist concentrations in south Lebanon after the terrorists fired Katyusha rockets into Upper Galilee. Settlers spent part of the day in bomb shelters. No casualties were reported.

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