Jerusalem (May. 11)
Premier Menachem Begin disclosed in the Knesset today that he had ordered the Air Force II days ago to attack Syrian SAM-6 anti-aircraft missile batteries in eastern Lebanon and indicated that he would not hesitate to order an air strike again if the Syrians refuse to remove the missiles.
Begin said the planned attack was delayed first by bad weather and then by a personal letter from President Reagan urging Israel not to take any action until all diplomatic means to resolve the crisis are exhausted. Begin described Reagan’s message as “one of the friendliest letters received by an Israeli government from an American President in recent years” and implied that its tone convinced him to exercise restraint for the time being.
Veteran U.S. diplomat Philip Habib, Reagan’s special representative, is due here today from Damascus on his mission to defuse the situation and avoid an Israeli-Syrian confrontation. Reports from the Syrian capital indicated that Habib made little headway with President Hafez Assad. Most Israeli officials have said they have little hope that the missile crisis can be resolved peacefully.
EXTENT OF MISSILES DEPLOYMENT
In his political statement to the Knesset, Begin described the extent of the deployment of missiles in Lebanon. He said there are presently 14 anti-aircraft batteries in that country and on the Lebanese-Syrian border. One of them, a SAM-9 battery, is operated by Libyan soldiers, Begin said. In Lebanon proper there are presently five Syrian SAM-6 batteries and on the border four SAM-6, two SAM-2 and two SAM-3 batteries.
Labor Alignment MKs immediately attacked Begin for revealing those details, saying he demonstrated a lack of national responsibility. Begin ignored the protest. He told the Knesset that the day after he gave Chief of Staff Gen. Rafael Eitan orders to unleash the Air Force he received a letter from Secretary of State Alexander Haig asking Israel for time to exhaust the diplomatic process. He said Reagan’s letter followed.
He said Reagan had asked in his letter, “What indeed is the danger?” of delay. He said he replied, in a message delivered to Reagan last week:
“In addition to all else, when our pilots embark to do what they will have to do, for the sake of the most vital interest of our security, which is an integral part of the security of the free world, some of them may be downed, killed or taken prisoner. If any of them fall into captivity, they will suffer the most cruel torture… I speak, Mr. President in the name of experience. These are dangers and risks we take upon ourselves by accepting a further delay of action.” Begin praised the present state of relations between Israel and the U.S., sa### could not recall a previous time when the understanding between the two countries was so great. Nevertheless, he repeated Israel’s opposition to the Administration’s proposal to sell advanced weapons to Saudl Arabia.
The Premier also took the occasion to attack Egyptian Foreign Minister Boutros Ghali for implying a week ago that Egypt might support an Arab country that was attacked by Israel. He claimed that statement was contrary to the letter and spirit of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty and expressed hope that it was made without the knowledge or consent of President Anwar Sadat.
BITTER MESSAGE TO ASSAD
Begin addressed a bitter message to President Hafez Assad of Syria, as “from one enemy to another.” He demanded that Assad refrain from brinkmanship and warned that if Syria does not remove its missiles from Lebanon, Israel will not tolerate their continued presence.
Begin implied that there was a national consensus on the Lebanon crisis when he quoted Labor Party chairman Shimon Peres as saying that if diplomatic efforts fail to get the missiles removed, the use of military force should not be excluded. Peres, who addressed the Knesset in reply, said that while he did not rule out the use of military force, there was no national consensus “on most of the issues on the agenda.”
According to Peres, Israeli policy in Lebanon suffered from lack of a defined purpose. Whereas Begin declared unflagging support for the Christian forces in that country, Peres said it was up to the Christians to decide what kind of Lebanon they wanted but it was not up to Israel to fight their battles for them.
“Will the Israeli army fight instead of the Lebanese army?” he asked, “and will this war be limited against the Syrians and not against the Moslems of Lebanon? War is no small matter. We must not commit ourselves to a path of generalizations and euphoria which has no clear definitions or limitations,” Peres declared.
Peres also questioned the wisdom of declaring, as Begin did to a Likud forum last night, that Israel intended to launch its air force against the missiles in Lebanon. “Who needed the specifications?” he asked, adding: “This is a serious period for the people and the State.” While the Knesset debate continued into the evening, it was apparent that there will be no joint resolution when it ends.