After three weeks of high tension, the Israeli-Syrian crisis over missiles in Lebanon may finally be heading slowly toward a peaceful solution. After a special Israeli Cabinet session heard the package of proposals carried by special US envoy Philip C. Habib, who returned here May 19 from Syria and Saudi Arabia, an aide to Prime Minister Menachem Begin characterized the package as "a program with which we are satisfied."
He added that there was a "good chance for an agreement." However, the Cabinet took no formal decision to accept or reject anything, agreeing only to give Mr. Habib more time to negotiate.
Coming on the heels of Mr. Begin's statement late May 19, after meeting with Mr. Habib, that Israel would "not launch a war against Syria unless she is attacked," such optimism seemed to indicate a firm Israeli commitment to the diplomatic process. It also seemed to sharply decrease the possibility of direct military confrontation with Syria.
But high Israeli officials cautioned, as Syria continued to emit public statements denying the crisis was defused, that "we are not out of the woods yet by any means." And Mr. Begin on Wednesday accused Syrian President Hafez Assad of a "very extremist statement" which "doesn't create the proper atmosphere," a reference to the Syrian President's reported remarks on May 20 that he had received no American proposals, only Israeli demands.
Although negotiations could still be protracted, it is the presence of Mr. Habib in the area that has clearly slowed the crisis momentum. The time which has elapsed since his arrival has allowed new realities to evolve which make it harder for Israel to return to the military option.
For one, the Syrians now are far better prepared to meet an attack than they were even a week ago. This means the scope of any war and the casualties would be greater.
The presence of Soviet warships in the Mediterranean has added another dimension. And a military attack against President Assad now, as Arab nations which previously despised him rally around his anti-Israel call, would probably only consolidate his political gains despite his almost certain military losses.
Even militarily, the benefits of an Israeli strike against Syrian positions are unclear: Bombed missile sites could be replaced, and unless the battle were gigantic -- tantamount to an Israeli takeover of Lebanon -- the Phalangist problems would remain unsolved.
Finally, with Israeli elections now less than six weeks away, an internal debate over the merits of going to war in Lebanon has shaken the country and inevitably had some effect on Israel's decisionmakers.
For all these reasons, Israel has opted for a diplomatic solution even if it takes time. However -- and Israeli officials are firm on this point -- should the Syrians finally refuse to remove the missiles, a military conflict could still explode.
Thus the Habib mediation package is designed to save face on both sides.
Israel wants a return to the status quo-ante in Lebanon, the balance of power existing before Syria attacked the largely Christian Phalangist forces there in April, spurring an Israeli strike on two Syrian helicopters. The Syrians responded by introducing antiaircraft missiles into the Bekaa Valley in central Lebanon, which Israel considers a breach of a previously upheld tacit understanding between the two countries.
As reported here, the American proposals call for cooling the Syrian-Phalangist tensions by turning over bitterly contested and strategic Mt. Sannin to regular Lebanese Army troops. They also suggest moving the Lebanese Army into nearby Zahle, a besieged Christian town in eastern Lebanon, to replace Phalangist militia who have antagonized the Syrians.
Mr. Begin told journalists that "nothing is required of us by the United States" to restore the status quo ante. However, reports here say that the Israelis would be asked to desist from "operational" flights over eastern and northern Lebanon, such as the ones which shot down the helicopters.
Theoretically, say Israeli sources, if the siege of the Christians were ended , this would remove the need for the Syrians to use their helicopters, and in turn for the kind of Israeli "operational" flights which downed them. Thus, in effect, the old status quo would be reestablished. The version of the Habib plan reported on Tuesday in a reliable Beirut newspaper, Al-Nahar, alleging that Israel would be required to stop reconnaissance flights over the Bekaa Valley and to end bombing raids over PLO bases in south Lebanon, would not be acceptable here.
Mr. Begin emphatically denied on Wednesday that the United States had asked Israel to stop or limit any flights over Lebanon "which are so vital to us." However, he added that the shooting down of two Syrian helicopters was "unique" and that except for one accidental air attack on a Syrian unit, Israel "never" attacked Syrian troops by air. This could be interpreted to mean that a limitation on "operational flights" over the Bekaa area would not change the status quo ante as such flights had not been the norm.
Removal of the missiles from Lebanon by Syria remains the crux of the whole American package without which it could still collapse. The key here appears to be a transfer of this problem entirely to the Arab arena so as to avoid any appearance of an Israeli "dictat" to Syria. Thus, say sources here, the Habib package would have Lebanese President Elias Sarkis request President Assad of Syria to remove the missiles, thus, "removing Israel as far as possible from the picture."
Saudi Arabia's help will be critical in persuading Syria to withdraw the missiles. Mr. Begin, who said on Wednesday that he did not withdraw "one word" of his caustic attack May 19 on the Saudi regime -- an attack that angered the Reagan administration -- conceded "to be truthful" that the Saudis had "tried to help for the last 24 hours by making several proposals. . . ."
Reportedly, the Saudis would recompense Syria by resuming recently suspended lar ge-scale financial aid.