Israel warned today that the Syrian deployment of SA6 ground-to-air missiles in Lebanon adds a new dimension to the conflict-there and represents an increase of tension.
But Prime Minister Menachem Begin said he does not think the confrontation will lead to war between Israel and Syria, despite the "risks in the situation."
Begin, after a hastily called meeting of the Israeli Parliament's foreign affairs and defense committee, however, repeated his warning that Israel will not allow the Lebanese Christian forces in the mountains northeast of Beirut to be destroyed by the Syrian army.
An Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman said, "The very fact that these missiles have entered an area where they were never before adds a new dimension to the situation and is an escalation by the Syrians."
Asked to elaborate, the spokesman said, "The only elaboration would be to take action, and that is not for us to do.
[Soviet-made Katyusha rockets fired from Lebanon hit Israeli settlements near the Lebanese border, slightly injuring at least eight persons, news services reported. Israeli military censors refused to allow the communities hit by the missiles to be named but broadcast reports said Kiryat Shamona was among the settlements attacked.]
The Israeli reaction to the introduction of the surface-to-air missiles near where Israeli warplanes shot down two Syrian helicopters on Tuesday was relatively low-keyed, taking into account the almost daily overflights of Lebanon by Israeli aircraft.
An Israeli Army spokesman said today that the presence of the SA6 missiles would not stop Israeli flights over central Lebanon.
"It may make us change our tactics, but it won't stop us from flying there," the spokesman said. "The SA6 has been around for a long, long time, and we are very familiar with it."
There reportedly were sharp exchanges in the foreign affairs and defense committee today between members of the opposition Labor Party and the ruling Likud over Begin's handling of the Syrian attacks on Christian forces in Zahle, Lebanon, and the nearby mountains.
There were indications in the Israeli news media that Israel's response to the Syrian moves will become a significant issue in the campaign for the June 30 Israeli parliamentary election.
While Labor Party leader Shimon Peres has not publicly seized the issue for campaign purposes, some Labor strategists were said to regard it as a potentially explosive debate.
In the independent daily Haaretz, editor-columnist Abraham Sweitzer accused Begin today of adopting a crisis management approach that could confuse Syrian leaders and exacerbate tensions..
A delayed Israeli reaction to the initial Syrian attacks on Zahle and the Christian positions presumably encouraged the Syrians to press harder, Sweitzer wrote. When the Begin government finally did react, he said, the statements were "spontaneous" and unclear and could not have been interpreted by Syrian President Hafez Assad as serious warnings.
"What is it that we will not tolerate? Will Israel tolerate a settlement between the Christians and the Syrians that will legitimitize a Syrian presence in the mountains?" Sweitzer asked. He said there has been no clear answer.
Labor Party campaign strategists were said to have been intrigued by the column and were considering an attack on Begin for his handling of the Lebanese crisis.