Jerusalem (May. 21)
Israel and Syria appear to be inching toward a peaceful solution of the missile crisis in Lebanon in response to the efforts of U.S. special envoy Philip Habib who is expected to continue his two-week-old round of shuttle diplomacy. Behind the bitter rhetorical exchanges yesterday between Premier Menachem Begin and President Hafez Assad, observers here detected signals from both sides of a willingness to compromise.
The first verbal shot came from Damascus where Assad told reporters that Habib had brought Syria no proposals — only demands by Israel. That was “absolutely not true,” Begin fired back after a meeting with Habib last night. He said there was indeed an American proposal which called for a return to the status quo ante in Lebanon. It means, Begin said, withdrawal of Syrian antiaircraft missiles from the Beka valley in eastern Lebanon and the withdrawal of Syrian troops from the strategic Sannine mountain range.
Begin called Assad’s remarks “very extremist” and therefore he could not say “if I am optimistic or pessimistic” that “there will be a peaceful solution.” Habib, for his part, told reporters after meeting with Begin that “the diplomatic efforts continue.”
But Assad, talking to American reporters in Damascus, seemed to hint that Syria could back down on the missiles issue without losing face. He stressed that the SAM-6 batteries were in Lebanon solely to defend Syrian troops who are in that country under a mandate from the Arab League given in 1976. He noted that during those five years, Syria had not deployed missiles in Lebanon and brought them in only after Israeli planes shot down two Syrian helicopters on April 28.
‘A UNIQUE ACT’ TO RESCUE CHRISTIANS
Begin told reporters that the downing of the helicopters was “a unique act” to rescue Christian forces in Lebanon “from the danger of being overwhelmed” by Syrian arms. “We don’t attack Syrian troops at all,” he added. Taken together, the remarks of Assad and Begin appeared to open the way to a tacit understanding.
Israel was signaling that it will not fly attack missions against Syrian troops. If that is the case, Assad, by his own logic, would be able to pull back the missiles on grounds that the threat to his forces no longer existed.
Begin also backed away somewhat from his bitter criticism two days ago of American approaches to Saudi Arabia for help in defusing the missile crisis. He conceded yesterday that the Saudis had offered “ideas” and “proposals, especially during the last 24 hours.” When Habib visited Riyadh over the weekend, Begin denounced the Saudis as “corrupt,” “unstable” and “incapable of contributing positively” to the situation.
Assad, for his part, said Syria was satisfied with the support it has been receiving from Saudi Arabia. He said he expected the Saudis to play a key role in the Arab League Foreign Ministers meeting in Tunis tomorrow which will deal with the Lebanon crisis.