Tel Aviv (Apr. 16)
— Israel had a guarded reaction today to reports that President Reagan sent a personal cable to President Hafez Assad of Syria yesterday hailing the role Damascus could play in achieving peace in the Middle East. The Reagan message was disclosed in Beirut by Beshir Gemayel, commander of the rightwing Christian Phalangists, who accused the U.S. of giving its blessings to the partition in Lebanon. The Phalangists have been battling Syrian forces in Lebanon in recent weeks.
(There was no immediate comment by the White House on Reagan’s reported cable sent on the occasion of Syria’s National Day yesterday). Observers here said it appeared to be an attempt by the U.S. to balance the sharp criticism of Syria by Secretary of State Alexander Haig when he was in Jerusalem 10 days ago. At that time, Haig denounced the Syrian shelling of the Christian town of Zahle in central Lebanon as “brutal.”
Israeli observers insisted, however, that the contradictory statements should not be taken as a sign that the Reagan Administration is following the “zig-zag policy” that the Carter Administration had been accused of. As if to emphasize this view, Premier Menachem Begin, in a television interview last night, hailed Haig’s remarks and said he was pleased that the U.S. now regarded Syria as a Soviet base.
Begin claimed that Syria has been supplied with more than 2000 modern Soviet made tanks, that the Soviets have stockpiled over 1000 T-62 and T-72 tanks in Syria for their own strategic use and another 2000 tanks in Libya.
In Washington yesterday, State Department spokesman Dean Fischer denied that U.S. policy wasaimed at getting the Syrians to withdraw their forces from Lebanon. At the same time, he said the U.S. wanted the Lebanese army to take over “security functions” in the entire country.