Reacting sharply to Israel's air battle with Syria over Lebanon, the Carter administration said yesterday that the new violence endangers the latest U.S. effort to get a comprehensive Middle East peace settlement.
A new phase of U.S. involvement in the peace search is due to begin Saturday, when Robert Strauss, President Carter's special Middle East negotiator, leaves on an eight-day, four-nation trip in which he is to participate for the first time in the negotiations over autonomy for the West Bank and Gaza Strip territories.
In a statement which did not assess blame for the clash formally but which called attention to Israel's "preemptive bombing strategy" against Palestinian locations in Lebanon, State Department spokesman Tom Reston said the United States was urging maximum restraint on Israel and Syria.
Four to six Syrian MIG21 fighters were shot down by the Israelis, who used, for the first time in combat anywhere, the U.S.-manufactured F15, the most sophisticated warplane in the U.S. Air Force inventory.
Israel's use of U.S. aircraft in Lebanon "has been of serious concern to us and to members of Congress," Reston said in a reiteration of previous statements of concern that have not been followed by any specific U.S. actions.
"The Israelis have been conducting a preemptive bombing strategy against Palestinian bases and concentrations in Lebanon in the wake of an increase in terrorist actions" against Israel, he continued. "Some of the targets have been extremely close to Syrian military positions."
The Syrians "have been scrambling aircraft from time to time in response to the Israeli actions," Reston said. U.S. officials reported that the administration had warned both countries earlier this week against continuing the pattern of confrontation.
Strauss is to arrive in Jeruaslem for talks with the Israeli government on Sunday and is to travel next week to Alexandria for the fourth round in the stalemated Egyptian-Israeli talks on Palestinian rights.
In another development, a spokesman for Henry A. Kissinger said that the former secretary of state will begin a private four-nation tour of the Middle East. Kissinger is to arrive in Cairo tonight and is to go to Israel Sunday to receive an honorary degree from Hebrew University. He then is to go to Jordan.
Kissinger is to finish his tour in Morocco, where he is to see King Hassan II. Kissinger is close to the Moroccan monarch, whose relations with the Carter administration have been uneven and who earlier this month abruptly demanded the recall of Ambassador Richard Parker, according to U.S. officials.
These officials said they were not sure how Parker had angered Hassan, but speculated that the move was a show of the king's displeasure with the State Department's opposition to increased arms sales to Morocco and with what Hassan sees as the department's favoritism toward Algeria. Parker has previously served as ambassador to Algeria.
The administration has kept the king's action secret, and is moving to replace Parker quickly, in contrast to its handling of a similar rebuff from Iran's revolutionary government last month. Then, the State Department disclosed Iran's refusal to accept Walter Cutler as ambassador and said that a replacement for Cutler would not be sent to Iran.