Begin tells US 'get Syria's SAM missiles out or else'; Israelis begin to ask if war talk warranted

Faced suddenly with the approach of war, a debate is arising within Israel over how the situation came about and whether the ends are worth the means. Questions emerging in the warm, windy, decidedly unwarlike atmosphere of Israel today are these:

* Was Israel's escalation in Lebanon necessary?

* How committed should Israel be to the Christian Phalange in Lebanon?

* Should Israel really be standing on the brink of war or be furthering diplomacy?

Not openly critical until now, Labor Party leader Shimon Peres May 11 split with the ruling Likud coalition of Menachem Begin, saying there was not a "national consensus" over the Lebanese crisis.This does not mean that the Labor Party rejects the military option. Indeed, a sense of the inevitability of the use of the Israeli Air Force against Syrian antiaircraft missiles persists in Israel among all parties.

True, both Labor and Likud continue to warn Syria that a raid is certain if diplomacy fails to convince Damascus to withdraw the missiles.

While still at a bottom-line agreement about Israel's security needs in Lebanon, Begin and Peres began to diverge May 11. Begin, moving into a much more war-ready stance, said he had planned to strike the Syrian missiles during the past 12 days but was prevented first by weather, then by a request from President Reagan. Begin may be pushing the crisis along in order not to allow time for a debate to arise.

Whether it will affect the seemingly inexorable push toward war, the opposition press, high-level Labor Party officials, and even some Likud supporters are beginning to wonder why, as the independent daily Ha'aretz said May 11, "In the midst of a crisis that is liable to escalate into a war between Israel and Syria, it has never been defined which of the goals involving Lebanon are worth fighting for."

Labor is not necessarily holding out the olive branch in contrast to the Likud sword: Labor rather seems to be seeking a voice in the high-level management of the crisis. Key Labor officials contacted by the Monitor say they object to the lack of consultation before Begin ordered Israeli jets to shoot down Syrian helicopters, thereby giving Syria an excuse for moving in missiles.

They also differ with Begin on the timing of a possible military raid on the missiles and on how far to go to protect the Lebanese Phalange, which is newly allied to Israel. Labor favors letting American negotiator Philip C. Habib fulfill his mission and says, "All diplomatic means must be tried first, as long as there is a chance."

Yet Labor spokesman Simcha Dinitz points out that his party has not said, "Diplomatic means are the only way. They are the first alternative, but not the only means." Dinitz admits that Labor, like Likud, believes a limited war could be fought and won by Israel.

Even among the military and in the ranks of Likud appointees to government, there is an expressed desire to follow the diplomatic route -- to such an extent that one government spokesman says Begin will "go the extra mile" in diplomacy so that "history will not brand him a warmonger if he acts."

Begin's apparent sense of mission, his emotional rhetorical overkill, and his self-confidence may have convinced most Israelis that there is no alternative to his approach. Moreover, because as yet there has been no mobilization order, no call-up of reservists, no wartime inconveniences, the basic assumption by Israelis may have been that this c ould be an easy little war.

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