What will it take to keep Israel and Syria from going to war over the placement of SAM missiles in Lebanon? Veteran American and Russian diplomats were seeking an answer to this dramatic question May 7 at the end of a week of tension between the two longtime Middle East foes.
The question arises in the inevitable Arab political discussions that occur a thousand times a day, even though apprehension among merchants, workers, and soldiers in cities such as Damascus and Beirut is noticeably absent.
There is a general feeling here though that the sword of Damocles hangs over the Levant --Valley of central Lebanon.
Some pundits go as far as predicting a fifth Arab-Israeli war and speculate on the political repercussions of such a conflict. And no matter behind which border these arguments take place, almost all agree that Israel could win the military phase of a showdown.
But after the shooting stops, Israel and the United States will be faced with sorting out relationships with moderate and almost-moderate Arab states -- such as Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq -- that undoubtedly would be strained, if not broken, in an Israeli-Syrian war.
"Assad is nobody's hero," says one observer of Syria's President, "but he is an Arab, and his soldiers are Arabs, and it will be clear if a fight starts who opened fire first."
Having projected the critical consequences of war (critical in every way except, possibly, in Israeli opinion polls), diplomats believe the answer has to be a backing off by both Syria's Hafez Assad and Israel's Menachem Begin.
This will require reduction or elimination of the dozen or so surface-to-air missile batteries now stationed in Lebanon; at least tacit agreement by Israel that it will not attack Syrian helicopters or troops operating in Lebanon; and a graceful way for Prime Minister Begin -- whose popularity seems to be rising in direct proportion to the sternness of his rhetoric -- to appear to have won.
Three strategic trends in the Middle East seem to have come together to contribute to the crisis:
* With the Israeli elections on June 30, and a scrappy contest being waged among Begin, Shimon Peres, and Moshe Dayan, events outside Israel take on a political cast.
"For the next few months, everything you see and hear will be related to the elections," Zeev Hefitz, a likud Party supporter who heads the government press office, predicted in late March. "It is greatest show in the world."
* The eight-month-old war between Iraq and Iran has removed one of the prime military checks on Syria. With Iraq preoccupied by the still quite hot war, Syria has been able to move troops from its eastern border and devote them to policing Lebanon.
Thus the Syrian Army for the moment does not have to worry about its flanks.
* Lebanon has continued in ferment and appears less sovereign now than at any other time since the 1975-76 civil war. A syrian-Israeli confrontation has been but a step away during the past month's fighting between the Phalange and Syria in the Zahle area. When Israel chose to spotlight its relationship with the Phalange and then sent its jets in to shoot down Syrian supply helicopters operating against the Phalange, a new chapter of escalation was begun.
A splintering Lebanon offers Israel an opportunity to secure its northern border by steadfastly backing Lebanese rightist Saad Haddad in southern Lebanon. Syria, meanwhile, gains in the current arrangement by holding the central Bekaa and thereby protecting Damascus, just to the east.
But while these trends contribute to the crisis, an actual war between Syria and Israel would turn at least one, and perhaps all, of the trends on their heads: Begin could suffer if the Israeli Air Force takes substantial losses: the Syrian Army could be so decimated by the superior Israeli military that Assad might eventually be challen ged by Iraq, Jordan, or, more likely, from within; Lebanon's breakup could become de jure rather than just de facto.