Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin today vehemently denied reports that the United States had proposed a compromise to the Syrian missile crisis in which Israel would restrict its flights over Lebanon, either for surveillance or to attack Palestinian guerrilla positions.
Begin said Israel's position remains that the situation in Lebanon must be returned to the "status quo ante," meaning that Syrian surface-to-air missile batteries must be removed, and Israel must retain the right of freedom of movement in the Lebanes skies.
Referring to reports from Washington of a four-point compromise proposal in which Israli flights over Lebanon would be reduced or restricted, Begin said. "There isn't such an American proposal. The information is completely misleading."
U.S. special envoy Philip C. Habib, according to the reports, which were carried in the Israeli press, had proposed that Syria remove its missiles and withdraw its troops from Mount Sanin overlooking the Christian stronghold of Zahle, while Israel would agree to restrict its overflights of the area. Also, Christian forces would withdraw from Zahle, in the Bekaa Valley, and the city would be protected by Lebanese Army troops.
Begin, who is also defense minister, has warned repeatedly that if the missiles are not removed soon, he will send the Israeli Air Force to bomb them. Syrian President Hafez Assad has said he will not remove the missiles.
Habib met with high-ranking Lebanese officials in Beirut today, and was scheduled to fly on to Damascus in his effort to work out a settlement of the crisis.
Washington Post correspondent Stuart Auerbach reported from Damascus that the four-point compromised plan reportedly being pushed by Habib is considered by diplomats there to be the only possible solution. He added, however, that they rate its chance for success as low.
The Syrian government reportedly has been telling diplomats that it will not pull out the missile batteries installed in the Bekaa Valley last month, which it says are for the sole purpose of protecting Syrian forces in Lebanon. The diplomatic sources said that both Assad and Begin have taken public stances tht would make it difficult even for a diplomt as accomplished as Habib to work out a deal. These diplomats said it appears that Syria will only remove the missiles if it can say Israel has stopped overflights in that area of Lebanon, something Begin has insisted he will not do.
[Sources in Damascus said they viewed Habib's presence in the area as the only thing stopping Israel from taking action against the missiles. They said Syria is strengthening antiaircraft defenses around the missile sites, to make it more difficult for Israeli planes to knock them out.]
Begin said Habib had offered no such plan in his meetings here Monday and yesterday, adding, "In any case, I want to assure you there is no American proposal to limit our right to the overflight of Lebanon, in order to discover what's going on and to prevent the attacks of the terrorists against Israeli citizens."
Talking with reporters outside his office, Begin said Israel does not want either a general war with Syria or a limited military action.
"We want a solution, a peaceful solution," he said.
But, he added, "much time we don't have, because the Syrians all the time send more missiles." He said that until there is a return to the situation before the deployment of the missiles, "we cannot say anything about the results."
Shortly before he returned to Beirut this morning to resume his shuttle diplomacy, Habib met with opposition Labor Party leader Shimon Peres to discuss the crisis. Peres said later that Habib had presented a compromise proposal, but the Labor leader refused to discuss its terms.
Peres said Israel must continue to insist on the removal of the Syrian missiles, but he said it does not have to be done before a week or two. Peres also criticized Begin's handling of the missile crisis.
Meanwhile, the Israeli Army command denied the Syrian claim that surface-to-air missiles fired yesterday in the Bekaa Valley had destroyed an Israeli pilotless photo reconnaissance airplane. Film purporting to show parts of the downed aircraft were shown last night on Syrian television.
Army sources said an Israeli drone was shot down over Lebanon about 18 months ago, and that the wreckage shown last night could have been of that aircraft.