Jerusalem (May. 4)
Israel was expected to reply affirmatively to an urgent message from President Reagan to Premier Menachem Begin today, calling on Israel to refrain from any overt measures against Syria’s deployment of SAM-6 anti-aircraft missiles in Lebanon while the U.S. attempts, by diplomatic means, to defuse the situation. Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir, meeting with Ambassadors from the European Economic Community (EEC) countries today, make it clear that Israel was still relying on political options.
Other political sources repeated the official position that Israel would try to avoid a military confrontation with Syria but would not acquiesce to the deployment of the missiles on Lebanon’s central mountain range. Begin said today that Syria had placed additional missiles on the Syrian-Lebanese border over the weekend but did not say on which side. He said there were three SAM-6 batteries now inside Lebanon.
Reagan’s message was delivered personally by U.S. Ambassador Samuel Lewis. Begin interrupted a meeting with the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Security Committee to receive him and then read the message to the committee. He appeared pleased with its contents, indicating that the U.S. accepted in principle Israel’s demands that the missiles be withdrawn from Lebanon.
NO PROGRESS ON THE DIPLOMATIC FRONT
Lewis told reporters after his meeting with Begin that there has been no progress so far on the diplomatic front but he did not think the situation was “desperate”. He said the U.S. would continue to do its utmost to resolve the matter, including contacts with the Soviet Union which is presumed to have influence in Damascus. Lewis said he had no information to confirm reports that the Syrians have placed more missiles in Lebanon.
The missiles were deployed after Israeli fighter planes shot down two Syrian helicopters over central Lebanon last week as a warning to Syria to halt its attacks on Christian forces. Syria insists that they will not be withdrawn. According to reports from Beirut today, Syria has asked the U.S. to put pressure on Israel to end its attacks on Lebanon. Diplomatic sources in Beirut said that Syria will not change its position despite hectic efforts by the U.S. Embassy in Damascus.
FEELING THAT TIME IS RUNNING OUT
Reagan’s message arrived when the feeling here was that “time is running out” for diplomatic means to be effective. But opinion is divided on what other measures to take. Begin stressed that the Reagan Administration is the most friendly toward Israel in recent years, implying that Israel should comply with the American request to exercise restraint. But committee chairman Moshe Ahrens seemed less optimistic when he emerged from the meeting.
“It is very difficult to predict how the Syrians behave,” Arens said, noting that President Hafez Assad is beset with internal difficulties. He would not say how long he thought Israel should wait for diplomatic efforts to succeed before it took matters into its own hands. But Labor MK Yossi Sarid said he saw prospects that the missiles would be removed without resort to military means.