War-weary Israel not united on Lebanon crisis

For the first time in its history Israel may face a government decision to go to war that is not supported by a genuine national consensus. There is a mood of unease and uncertainty among many Israelis that their country might still be drawn into a large-scale war with Syria, a war whose aims have not been clearly stated by the government.

"What does Israel stand to gain from a wider war?" asked the English-language Jerusalem Post. "There is no evidence that the question has even been seriously tackled by the government."

Israelis have become used to -- and weary of -- fighting wars. They have waged four in their country's 33-year life span.

But previous wars have drawn the nation together in a clear-cut battle against actual on imminent attacks. This time, however, Israelis seem uncertain as to what could -- or would -- be achieved by a wider war with Syria. A lack of consensus is unsettling because it is so unusual. It is compounded by pre-election rhetoric.

Prime Minister Menachem Begin has expressed his desire to avoid a full-scale war, and the Israeli press is searching for hopeful signs in the peacemaking mission of special US envoy Philip C. Habib, who returned to Jerusalem May 14 from Damascus, although Syrian President Hafez Assad has showed no public interest in compromise.

There is a consensus here -- among the public and across party lines -- that the anti-aircraft missiles, introduced by Syria into central Lebanon two weeks ago, must be removed. This consensus was strengthened May 14 when a Syrian missile downed an unmanned Israeli reconnaissance drone flying over eastern Lebanon. But the Israelis are divided over how far the country should go to defend the Christians of Lebanon against Syria.

Mr. Begin has created controversy by his broad commitments of support to the Christians, comparing their plight to that of the Jews during the Nazi Holocaust. But Labor Party opposition leader Shimon Peres, insisting that national consensus does not extend beyond the need to remove the missiles, has said the Christians should get military aid.

"We can't fight their battles for them," he said.

Despite the tension engendered by a lack of consensus, there has been little sense here of a nation about to go to war. Unlike the weeks prior to the 1967 war, when the streets were deserted, tourists evacuated, public meetings canceled, vehicles commandeered, and massive military call-ups, life is going on here almost as usual.

Most Israelis have expected that war would somehow be avoided, and if a confrontation did come, it would be confined to a swift air strike with few if any Israeli losses.

But as the crisis drags on, signs of impending war have increased. Some reserve callups have begun, school picnics on the Golan Heights have been canceled, and although it is not constantly under discussion, the subject of war hangs in the air.

The lack of consensus in public and private debate increases the tension. Stop a handful of Israelis on the street, chat in shops, or visit a large gathering, and the views on war with Syria diverge sharply, often but not always along government-opposition lines.

Some Israelis are willing to support Mr. Begin's public commitments to the Lebanese Christians. "We have a human duty to fight for the Christians," insisted Moshe Loberbaun, a Jerusalem lawyer, as he rushed to lunch. "With the help of the Christians, Israel has a chance to control the whole area of Lebanon and this is good for our security. I hope Mr. Habib will leave the area, so we can get on with it."

Others back aid for the Christians but stop short of waging war for them. "We have no business fighting for the Christians," argued Jerusalem bank teller Jacob Braha. "Give them military supplies," he added, as a group of passers-by nodded agreement. "But don't go to war for them. But I support sending the Air Force to take out the Syrian missiles from Lebanon."

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