The crisis over Syrian missiles in Lebanon is pushing Israel to define just how far it is prepared to go backing up its commitment to the Christians of central and north Lebanon.
That definition could well be critical for the whole Middle East.
Meanwhile, Israel is giving quiet diplomacy -- especially United States efforts -- a further chance to resolve the tense crisis. But it is not ruling out the use of force to remove the SAM-6 and SAM-2 ground-to-air missiles if diplomacy fails.
According to Israeli radio, US Ambassador Samuel Lewis delivered a message from President Reagan to Prime Minister Menachem Begin May 4 asking Israel to allow more time for the removal of the missiles by diplomatic means.
The Israeli Cabinet, in a closed session May 3, agreed to forgo military measures for the present. But some ministers -- expressing a widespread skepticism here -- argued that diplomacy would not work and the use of force was inevitable.
Prime Minister Begin told Israeli radio May 3 that diplomatic efforts had so far produced no results. While calling for the removal of Syrian troops from Lebanon, he said, "We never promised anybody that we would use the IDF [Israeli defense forces] to eject the Syrians," an apparent reference to the question of Israeli participation in an all-out war on behalf of the Christians.
Syria moved in the missile batteries after Israel shot down two Syrian helicopters last week. The helicopters were taking part in a large-scale syrian assault on Lebanese Christian positions atop Mt. Lebanon, a ridge that commands the Christian heartland. The Syrians, in Lebanon as ostensible peace-keeping forces since the end of the Lebanese civil war in 1976 and regarded by large segments of the Christians as occupiers, claimed the Christians had been trying to expand strategic positions.
Israel believed that Syrian conquest of Christian mountain strongholds would expose the Christian capital and the coast to Syrian control.
Israel is now accusing Syria of crossing a tacit "red line" accepted by both in 1976 as the price for Israeli acceptance of Syrian troops in Lebanon. The "red line" meant, Israel says, that Syria would not deploy ground forces south of the Litani River above Israel's border; the Syria could not use its Air Force in Lebanon; and that Syria could not move antiaircraft missiles into Lebanon. The presence of such missiles would inhibit Israel from flying over Lebanon in attacks on bases of the Palestine Liberation Organization, a tactic it uses freely.
However, Damascus Radio this week categorically rejected the israeli concept of "red lines," the first public Syrian rejection of the concept according to the Associated Press in Beirut.
There is bipartisan support in Israel for "doing what has to be done," in the words of one member of parliament, to get the missiles removed. Few challenge Israel's absolute commitment to the Christians of south Lebanon in the zone along Israel's border, who provide a buffer and a military force against PLO bases just north of their sector. But there is more controversy over risking all-out war for the Christians of the north.