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Thousands at Rally Assail Begin’s Policy of Handling Missile Crisis

May 18, 1981
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— A large body of military reservists, academicians, students and others demonstrated here against Premier Menachem Begin’s handling of the missile crisis with Syria and challenged his contention that a national consensus exists in support of his policies.

The demonstration, called by the Peace Now Movement on less than one day’s notice, brought crowds estimated at 3000 to 10,000 into the streets yesterday to demand that the Begin government think before it acts.

Their challenge was backed up by several reserve generals who criticized Begin’s position in radio and television interviews over the weekend and by several dozen army reserve officers and soldiers who addressed a letter to Begin as Prime Minister and Minister of Defense Friday calling for “cool and careful” consideration of any moves planned against the anti-aircraft missiles deployed by Syria in central Lebanon.

Although the demonstrators made it clear that the missiles must be removed and they they would fight if called to the colors, they carried placards reading, “Begin’s Verbal Barrage Must Be Stopped,” Begin Must Go” and “Political Wisdom, Not Begin’s Verbomania.”

Since the missile crisis began, Begin has repeatedly warned that Israel will destroy the Syrian SAM-6 batteries unless they are removed. He disclosed in the Knesset last week that he had in fact ordered an air strike on April 30 which was called off only because of bad weather. He implied that he has exercised restraint since then only at the urging of President Reagan who asked Israel to wait until all diplomatic means are exhausted before taking military action.


Members of Peace Now said they would fight in the event of war but they wanted to be certain that all political options had been explored before full-scale fighting broke out. In radio and television interviews, Gen. (Res.) Mussa Peled, a former armored corps commander, and Gen. (Res.) Dan Laner, a former divisional commander, urged the government to “talk less and think more.”

Peled said the government has not yet exhausted all diplomatic routes to a peaceful solution of the missile crisis. As things now stand, he said, there is no national consensus in favor of going to war. Laner said the government must study its political options and stop reacting to events. Others who expressed similar views at the rally were Natan Rotenstreich, professor of philosophy at Tel Aviv University; economics professior Assaf Razih; and writer Natan Shaham.

The reservists who wrote to Begin last Friday, most of them law students at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, said their appeal was a “stop sign” signaling the government to think about how to avoid a war. A group of army reservists from kibbutzim in the Negev also urged Begin to “cease pursuing a violent and uncompromising path.”

The premier was supported, however, by the settlers of Kiryat Arba on the West Bank who urged him to disregard the appeals by the reservists. But they, too, said that every political effort should be made to solve the missile problem by peaceful means.

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