Jerusalem — As the Israelis hover on the edge of war with Syria, they are asking themselves how they got there and whether it could have been avoided. Prime Minister Menachem Begin's handling of the crisis has become a controversial issue, especially with parliamentary elections only six weeks away.
There is a bipartisan consensus here that Syria must remove the missiles it moved into Lebanon at the end of April. But prominent critics, who include former generals, academics, military correspondents, and opposition politicians, have questioned Mr. Begin's early decisions in the crisis and accused him of heating the atmosphere with bellicose campaign rhetoric.
Ruling Likud coalition ministers have in turn blamed these attacks on the Labor Party and accused it of "disloyalty and unpatriotic statements." However, there has been a definite softening of the prime minister's tone since last Friday. Mr. Begin stressed on Sunday the Cabinet's unanimous agreement that special US envoy Philip C. Habib be given "no time limit whatsoever" for his efforts to settle the crisis by diplomatic means.
The criticism of Begin has gone deeper than mere campaign sniping. Military specialists here have questioned why a five-year-old tacit understanding between Syria and Israel over limits to Syrian military activity in Lebanon broke down, and whether Israel's reaction made things worse.
The tacit understanding -- a complex pattern of "red lines" that would regulate Syria's movement so that it would not deploy ground forces south of the Litani River above Israel's border or use its Air Force in Lebanon -- was allegedly established in 1976 with the help of then US Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger after Syrian troops entered Lebanon. (Syria has denied that any such agreement existed.)
According to Israeli sources, Israel agreed to a Syrian presence in north Lebanon to keep warring Christians and Muslims apart. Syria agreed to an Israeli role in south Lebanon, to hold Palestine Liberation Organization bases there in check and OK'd Israeli flights over Lebanon so Israel could monitor Syrian and PLO movements. Among other points, Syria also agreed not to put antiaircraft missiles in Lebanon and not to use its Air Force there.
For five years the understandings worked, save for occasional dogfights in which Syria lost 13 planes. But they broke down over the past two months when Lebanese Christians mounted an offensive against Syrian troops. The Syrians replied with a severe bombardment of Christian centers. Israel, allied to the Christians in the desire to prevent total Syrian domination of Lebanon, downed two Syrian helicopters on April 28. Syria responded by moving missiles into the nearby Bekaa Valley the next day.
Official Israeli sources contend that it was Syria that upset the status quo by trying to gain total control over the Christians. They say use of the helicopters violated the "red line" ban on use of Syrian air power. They also say that Israeli intelligence shows that Syria had prepared missile emplacements even before the helicopters were shot down.
But critics of the prime minister say his emotional public support for the Christians --Holocaust -- surpassed Israel's security needs and misled the Christians into launching an offensive with expectations of full Israeli support.
Moreover, critics challenge whether shooting down the helicopters was the only military option available, and whether Mr. Begin took sufficient account of the likely Syrian response, especially what would happen if Syria deployed missiles.
Ze'ev Schiff, respected military correspondent of the independent daily Ha'aretz, angered the prime minister by writing that Israel had assumed it could knock out missiles by an air strike, but failed to foresee that American mediation efforts would limit Israel's freedom of military response due to wider American aims in the area.
Other analysts note that even had Israel bombed the missile sites immediately -- a plan aborted by bad weather -- the Syrians could have moved more missiles in. And some have questioned whether Mr. Begin fell neatly into a Syrian-Soviet trap aimed at expanding Mideast tension to counter America's anti-Soviet diplomatic moves in the area.
Once Israel was committed to the search for a diplomatic solution, critics argue that Mr. Begin should have forsworn his tough-talking style. No one accuses him of wanting a war, but his saber-rattling election rhetoric -- while electrifying his supporters --dismayed his critics, including military officers.
The placing of Syrian missiles in Lebanon is "no justification for war" argued Gen. Dan Laner (ret.). A division commander in the October 1973 war, he was one of several Israeli generals to criticize the government's policy on Israeli television. General Laner called on Israel to first work out its political objectives in the crisis and to stop merely reacting to events.
In Tel Aviv some 2,000 "Peace Now" movement demonstrators -- whom the government labeled a "tiny minority" -- called on Saturday for a return to "sane leadership."
With the crisis now appraoching a climax, both government and opposition are aware that public squabbles do the country no good. Mr. Begin and Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir have been publicly stressing the need for a political solution to the missile crisis.
And Labor Party leader Shimon Peres has asked the government to start informal consultations with the opposition to prevent the missile affair from becoming an election issue.
If a conflict does break out, there is no question that the Israelis will close ranks against the threat, but should the solution be slow or costly, it will not help Mr. Begin at the polls.