''An Israeli assault is imminent - only a matter of weeks,'' declared Michel Edde, Lebanese minister of information, in an interview with the Monitor.
In voicing his fears of an Israeli attack, Mr. Edde reflected the concerns echoed increasingly in official pronouncements and embellished in the usual rumor mills here. But they also mirror Israel's increase in troops along the Lebanese border and the confrontational tone of the Israeli news media.
Other observers, however, while unhappily agreeing that an Israeli operation may be planned before April, defer the estimated date until later in March or early April, when the weather will be more auspicious.
Mr. Edde says the advantages for Israel to undertake a double strike against Lebanon before April 25 are compelling. He foresees a simultaneous, two-pronged attack: the first against a military target such as the entrenched Palestinian positions between the Litani and Zahrani rivers; the second against an economic objective, deep into the Bekaa Valley and across the principal Syrian lines.
He emphasized that the Israeli objectives must include moving far into the Bekaa Valley well above the Karaoun Dam, because: ''The waters of the Litani River are useless without control of the dam.''
Other officials, including the engineers and planners, confirmed Mr. Edde's assessment that Israeli designs on the waters of the Litani entail the conquest of most of central Lebanon. Today much of the Litani River is used for generating electricity in three power plants, using water extracted by the dam at Karaoun or in existing irrigation projects in the Bekaa Valley.
The residual, unused flows, a maximum of 200 million cubic meters in an average year, are too small to profit Israel materially if it takes only the lower reaches of the river. Thus, there is a resigned (and embittered) consensus that Israel's proximate target is conquest of the entire watershed of the Litani , as far north as the present Beirut-Damascus Road, in order to safeguard its own diversion works.
As evidence for the imminence of Israel's attack, Mr. Edde pointed to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin's narrow margin in the Knesset and thus the utility of new military ventures as a prelude to possible early new elections. He emphasized the aggressive role of Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, ''a key extremist who is not there to cut flowers.''