Harsh exchanges set tone for Habib's return to Mideast
Israel and Syria are sending noisy, tension-building messages -- in words, bullets, and action -- to each other and to the United States in anticipation of the return later this week of special US envoy Philip C. Habib.
Mr. Habib is expected to return to the area from consultations with President Ronald Reagan in Washington, after the June 4 summit meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyption President Anwar Sadat.
In what seemed a slap at the Habib mission, Mr. Begin told newsmen June 1 that the American envoy had so far achieved "no practical results" in his three-week shuttle effort to get Syria to remove antiaircraft missiles installed in Lebanon one month ago.
Mr. Begin said that Israel was giving Mr. Habib "more time and showing more patience," but there was a limit to how long it could wait.
The Israeli prime minister also charged that Syria was building up its military forces in Lebanon and mobilizing at home. Israel would not attack the Syrians, he said.
But he emphasized that Israel would not cease to strike at bases of Syria's Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) allies in Lebanon, even during Mr. Habib's mision. And he warned that if Syria attacked, Israel "would reply in kind."
Meanwhile, in Lebanon, the warning to Mr. Habib came in bullets. Heavy shelling continued in Beirut between Christian and Muslim forces, while Christian and Syrian forces clashed at Zahle, the Christian town in the Bekaa Valley where the current crisis was first ignited. And Syria held a natiowide civil-defense alert which Israeli sources say is that country's first since the 1973 October war.
Mr. Begin's impatience reflects an apparent difference between Israel and the United States in their evaluations of the Habib mission's success so far. The Americans are pleased that Mr. Habib's presence succeeded in avoiding hostilities. President Reagan said it was "a miracle" that war did not occur.
The Americans are willing to give Mr. Habib -- and the Saudis, who are acting as mediators with the Syrians -- as much time as is necessary to pursue a diplomatic solution. Western sources here express confidence that no war will break out.
The Israelis -- nervous that the passage of time will accustom the world to the presence of Syrian missiles in Lebanon and will complicate a military option if diplomacy fails -- are looking for more concrete results. Mr. Begin complained that Syrian missiles still remain in Lebanon, and that Mr. Habib had not gotten a committment from Syria not to fire them at Israeli planes flying over Lebanon.
Moreover, the Israelis are openly skeptical about the chances for Saudi mediation efforts and they are concerned that should the Saudis succeed, this would win them congressional support for the proposed US sale of AWACS radar planes to Saudi Arabia. Perhaps as a reminder to Mr. Habib that Israel -- not Saudi Arabia -- remains America's staunchest Mideast bulwark against the Russians, Prime Minister Begin reiterated yet again Monday that Soviet advisers are accompanying Syrian units in Lebanon. This point has not been confirmed by the US State Department.
Mr. Begin's emphasis on the Syrian military buildup may be meant as another reminder to the Americans -- this one of the price the Israelis feel they are paying for their patience. Israeli military sources say that Syria has beefed up its position on the Golan Heights, moved massive convoys of troop reinforcements and weapons systems into Lebanon's Bekaa Valley and south, and bolstered their antiaircraft capability.
However, the number of antiaircraft missile batteries just over the Syrian border in Lebanon -- the focus of the crisis -- still stands at 13, the same as three weeks ago. The Israelis also say that during the past few weeks the Libyans have bolstered their longstanding presence in Lebanon with 400 to 500 officers who are instructing PLO guerrillas in the use of the latest Soviet weaponry.
There are differences of opinion within the top echelons of the Israeli government about evaluating the significance of the Syrian buildup. Some civilian officials believe that the Syrians are acting out of fear of an Israeli attack and are also raising the ante in the negotiation.
Deputy Defense Minister Mordechai Zippori told Israel radio that despite aggressive talk, the Syrians were careful not to shoot at the Israeli planes that bombed Libyan missile sites in Lebanon last week. Within the military hierarchy, some sources insist that Syria appears to be preparing for war.
But despite the Syrian buildup, Israel has indicated that for now it will not attack the Syrians.
however, reports from Washington indicate that the Reagan administration is currently concerned that Israeli air strikes against PLO or Libyan targets in Lebanon, like last week's attack, might adversely affect Saudi mediation efforts with Syria. A state department spokesman said on May 29 that the US considered that "any resort to violence is counterproductive."
However, Mr. Begin's remarked today indicated clearly that Israel would not cease these strikes and that it had already so informed Mr. Habib. And the Israeli leader sent a clear warning that any Syrian response to such a strike would be met by Israeli retaliation.