Begin tells US 'get Syria's SAM missiles our or else'; Israel was ready to bomb missiles 3 times
In a startling address to the Israeli parliament, Prime Minister Menachem Begin has revealed that Israel had planned three times on April 30 to bomb the SAM-6 missile batteries that Syria had moved into central Lebanon the day before.
Mr. Begin told the Knesset May 11 that the planned missions had been scratched only because of inclement weather.
The Israeli prime minister also made known that a first bombing raid was canceled when the Israeli government agreed on May 1 to a request by US Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. that Israel allow time for an American diplomatic solution to the missile crisis.
Mr. Begin's bombshell, in which he stressed repeatedly and emotionally the risks Israel had taken by postponing military action to wait for so-far unsuccessful diplomacy, puts heavy pressure on special US envoy Philip C. Habib to deliver.
The American diplomat, charged with defusing the missile crisis, arrived in Israel May 11 after visits to Lebanon and Syria. He met with Mr. Begin after his parliamentary address.
Mr. Begin stressed in his speech that he had agreed to extend the time period for diplomacy past the additional four days only after an extremely friendly letter from President Ronald Reagan, which he received on May 5. But he made known that Syria has moved an additional missile battery into Lebanon since that undertaking. That brings the total from three to five SAM-6 missile batteries in Lebanon, with another four on the Lebanese-Syrian border.
Mr. Begin also said that within the past two days the one battery of SAM-2's and one of SAM-3's on the Lebanese-Syrian border have been increased to two each. Syria, he said, had also brought in a battery of SAM-9's supplied to Lebanon by Libya.
Although Mr. Begin did not set a deadline for Mr. Habib's diplomatic efforts, he made it clear that time was short. In dramatic tones he called on Syrian President Hafez Assad "as enemy to enemy" to withdraw the missiles and to take his soldiers off Mt. Sannin. He was referring to a peak from which the Syrians have attempted to control the heartland of Israel's Christian allies in north Lebanon.
Mr. Begin's revelation leaves Mr. Habib little room to maneuver. The American diplomat is seeking a way out of a seemingly insoluble impasse. Syria's movement of missiles into central Lebanon was a violation of a tacit pact with Israel made in 1976 It followed Israel's downing of two Syrian helicopters over Mt. Sannin to protect its Christian allies. But Syria insists the missiles are "defensive" and says they must remain.
Western sources here stress that Mr. Habib did not come to the Middle East with a prepared American plan. They say he came to meet the protagonists first hand, to listen, and it is hoped, to act as a catalyst, melding elements on each side into a formula for compromise.
Press reports in Israel are flooded with stories alleging Habib has "failed" in his mission, unable to persuade Syria to budge on the missile issue.
Given the apparent inflexibility of both sides, observers here say Mr. Habib's best prospect would appear to be a play for time, time in which both sides might reconsider --or be reminded by allies -- of the dangers of war. Syria, with her missiles in place, appears to be in no hurry. But as Mr. Begin stessed today, the Israelis will give diplomacy only so much time. And if diplomacy cannot meet the time limit, never officially stated -- Mr. Begin has said, "The Israeli Air Force will be given the order to act."
The Israeli press is full of speculation that this will happen within days of Mr. Habib's departure.
Mr. Begin has stressed that Israel and the US are "entirely of one mind" about the "need" for the Syrians to restore the status quo ante in Lebanon. But Western sources here indicate that the main US interest at the moment is to see things cool down.
One indication of the future, of Mr. Habib's mission, say observers here, will be whether he returns to the Arab world to continue diplomatic soundings or goes back to Washington. But the dramatic timing and the marked impatience of Mr. Begin's announcement May 11 give warning that Israel's patience is w earing thin.