Jerusalem — A single American diplomat seems to be all that is keeping Israel and Syria apart. Despite Israeli Prime Minister Menachem begin's apparent willingness to use force as a last resort and his belief that Washington stands firmly behind him, US envoy Philip C. Habib is working hard to cool the Syrian-Israeli crisis.
So far the United States has acted as go-between rather than power broker. But as Mr. Habib pursues his week-old mission, what he hears and how he is received may be giving Washington time to formulate a face-saving compromise, an informed Western source says.
Mr. Habib is moving from capital to capitl with an open-ended schedule, planning his next step depending on what he hears. Sources here say that Mr. Habib was surprised by Mr. Begin's revelations in the Knesset (parliament) of the planned Israeli Air Force attack against Syrian-placed missiles in Lebanon. The timing of Mr. Begin's speech -- two hours before his first official meeting with Mr. Habib May 11 -- amounted to a snub of sorts. Mr. Begin's statement that he had received an uncharacteristically warm letter from President Reagan could make Syria wonder how much of a go-between Mr. Habib really has been.
Mr. Habib's next moves will tell whether he is detecting openings for compromise or finding both sides rigid and moving closer to war.
Most observers believe he will go back to the Arab world -- possibly to Syria , or to Saudi Arabia, which is important to the Assad regime -- after ending talks here with the Begin government on may 13. Mr. Habib is reported to be relaxed and resilient, but a seasoned observer says he still has only a 1-in-10 chance of success.
This is the problem:
A negotiated settlement from Mr. Begin's point of view means Syria would have to (1) remove the antiaircraft misssiles stationed in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley since April 29, (2) withdraw from the Sannin Heights on the edge of the Lebanese Phalangist stronghold of Juniye, and (3) end the siege of the Lebanese town of zahle.
Begin says he is willing to exhaust diplomatic possibilities. It is not certain whether this means just the Habib mission or other efforts. But if such moves do not succeed, the Israeli Air Force will be sent in.
The Syrians say the missiles protect some of the 30,000 Syrian troops operating in Lebanon under Arab League orders, that the Phalange threatens Syrian soldiers and Lebanese stability with expansionist aims, and that Lebanon's Bekaa Valley is vital to Syrian defense.
Meanwhile, Begin and Syria's Hafez Assad continue at loggerheads.
Western sources say Habib's Damascus visit may not have produced a significant change of attitude on Assad's part, but their four-hour meeting was a break-through in itself. The US-Syrian relationship has been so icy that US Embassy officials in Damascus rarely, if ever, meet with the Syrian government. A graceful compromise drafted by the US could help warm relations and draw Syria away from its increasing dependency on the Soviet Union.
Begin's May 11 revelation that he had attempted to strike the missile positions, coupled with the passage of time (and therefore the loss of the surprise element), may force him to compromise. Begin's opposition in the Labor Party has continued its recent line of attack on his handling of the Lebanese crisis, thus showing Begin he does not have carte blanche to call in the military.
Former chief of staff Mordechai gur warned Begin May 11 against "dragging the US into a war [with Syria] which is not inevitable." But much of the Israeli political rhetoric has to be seen within the context of electioneering. Israel goes to the polls June 30.
In New York, former Defense Minister Ezer Weizman suggested that Israel might prefer the "risk" option -- continuing Israeli flights over Lebanon with Syria agreeing not to fire missiles.