Mideast peace pieces just might fit together after all
For the first time since the Syrian-Israeli missiel crisis over Lebanon began two weeks ago, attention in Israel has shifted from the prospects of a war with Syria to the slim chance that a political solution can be found.
The basis for hope -- Western sources caution that optimism is still too strong a word -- is a complicated package of proposals being put forward by special US envoy Philip C. Habib, who returned to Beirut May 13 for a second round of talks after completing an initial swing through Lebanon, Syria, and Israel.
The package aims for an elaborate reconstruction of the delicate balance of forces that existed in Lebanon two months ago. Since then the Syrians have deployed antiaircraft missiles in central Lebanon and moved to take the strategic Mt. Sannin, controlling the heartland of Israel's Christian allies in north Lebanon.
As reported by American and Israeli news media, the possible elements of a settlement could include:
* Israel's Christian Phalangist allies in northern Lebanon would cease trying to link up with the major Christian town of Zahle in central Lebanon. Their moves in this direction have angered the Syrians because Zahle lies astride a major Syrian supply line into Beirut.
* Christian militias would leave Zahle, to be replaced, perhaps, by Lebanese Army units; in return, Syria would loosen its hold on the Sannin peak.
* Israel would undertake to stop "operational Air Force flights" over eastern Lebanon, the kind of flight that resulted in the downing of two Syrian helicopters April 28.
* This Israeli undertaking would facilitate the queit removal over time of the Syrian missile batteries moved in after the helicopter incident.
As Mr. Habib left Jerusalem, the Israeli Prime Minister's office was already issuing the denial of one of the leaked points, insisting that "there is no American plan suggesting an agreement whereby Israel's flights over Lebanon will be limited."
Western sources here stress that the proposals consist not of a predetermined American plan but of elements formulated along Mr. Habib's route.These elements can still be changed.
Their present form was divulged not by Mr. Habib, who has been extremely closemouthed, lest publicity ruin his mission, but by US Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. at a closed Washington diplomatic luncheon on Tuesday where he called the proposals a "long shot."
The important thing about the package, Western sources say, is that it "offers something to talk about." But no one here doubts the excruciating difficulty of finding a compromise that causes neither side to loose face. Not only have Israel and Syria boxed themselves into a corner with bellicose rhetoric; both have basic sticking points on which neither is likely to yield. But observers here see some room for maneuver if both sides are interested.
Israel is adamant that the missiles must be removed, that the Sannin peaks be vacated by Syrian troops, and Israel's right to mount reconnaissance flights and to bomb Lebanese bases of the Palestine Liberation Organization left unchallenged.
Syria, on the other hand, is concerned about control of the Bekaa Valley in east Lebanon, which Damascus considers its soft underbelly, and warry of a united Christian force in Lebanon that would challenge Syrian hegemony there. And Syria is publicly committed to keeping the missiles in Lebanon.
Within these limits observers see some possibility of a compromise limiting Israeli flights over the Bekaa, in return for which Syria would leave the Sannin peaks and tacitly remove the mis siles from the Bekaa.