A confrontation between an Israeli tank force and U.S. Marines in Beirut prompted the Reagan administration yesterday to file a strong protest with the Israeli government and to warn that such incidents could lead to serious loss of life if they were not stopped.
Acting Secretary of State Ken Dam summoned the Israeli charge d'affaires "to discuss this incident and the gravity with which we view it," State Department spokesman Alan Romberg announced.
"The recurrence of challenges to the Marines by Israeli Defense Forces is unacceptable," said Romberg. "We view such incidents very seriously, both because they endanger the safety of the troops involved and hamper the peace keeping efforts of the multinational force."
Romberg said "our information is that U.S. Marines halted three Israeli tanks which had attempted to cross into territory within the operational responsibilities" of the multinational force.
The Israeli government immediately disputed the U.S. version of events. It said the incident occurred in an area under its jurisdiction and denied that Israeli tanks had tried to challenge the American force.
"This is the third time this has happened," Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger told the House Armed Services Committee without detailing the other two incidents. He said it was his "continuing worry" that they could escalate to the point that they caused "serious loss of life."
He said three Israeli tanks pushed against Lima Company of the Marine battalion in Beirut even though "there was no authority or necessity for it. They made threatening moves. The Marine company commander told them he would not let them enter. The lead tank moved closer. He got the lead tank commander, a lieutenant colonel," to come out of this tank. The Israeli commander, Weinberger continued, said his tanks were going to move through the Marine position. "The Marine captain said they were not, loaded his rifle, climbed on the lead tank and said, if they were coming in, it would be over his dead body." According to reports from Beirut, however, the weapon was a .45-cal. pistol.
Weinberger said the Marine, Capt. Charles B. Johnson, 30, of Neenah, Wis., commanding officer of Lima Company, who has been in Beirut since Nov. 1, acted with "total correctness and extreme courage. I've asked that he be commended."
Weinberger called the incident "basically damaging to the president's efforts to secure peace in the whole area." He stressed that early withdrawal of Israeli, Syrian and Palestine Liberation Organization forces was the key to bringing peace to Lebanon and allowing the removal of the Marines and other troops in the peacekeeping force.
The Israeli government disputed the Weinberger account both in Washington and in Tel Aviv.
Ebenjamin Netanyahu, who as charge d'affaires represents Israel when the ambassador is absent, told reporters after hearing Dam's protest that the Israel patrol went "into an area which we understood had been agreed upon earlier as territory to be patrolled by Israel. There was no attempt whatsoever to cross or challenge the American Marines, or the territory they are holding." The military command in Tel Aviv said the tanks were patrolling 660 yards inside the Israeli zone.
Although the reluctance of Israel to withdraw its troops is a sore point among administration officials, with Reagan advising Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin that his planned visit to Washington should be postponed until there is progress on this front, the White House said the president planned no sanctions against Israel.
"There is not going to be any undue pressure on Israel to pull out unless the Syrians and the remnant of the PLO pull out," said Edgar Bronfman, president of the World Jewish Congress, after he and a small group of Jewish leaders had met with Reagan yesterday.
Bronfman and Julius Berman, president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, also said that Reagan told them that King Hussein of Jordan would be willing to join in Mideast peace talks after foreign forces leave Lebanon. Reagan did not say a freeze of Israeli settlements on the West Bank was a pre-condition for such broadened talks, they added.
White House spokesman Larry Speakes, while declining to confirm the remarks of the Jewish leaders in detail, did say that imposing sanctions against Israel is not "the way we do business."
In contrast to the calm words from the White House, one conservative Democratic legislator who has staunchly supported Israel in the past, Rep. Dan Daniel of Virginia, said he will vote against further U.S. assistance to Israel if the confrontations with the Marines in Lebanon do not stop.
"Israel is playing a dangerous game," Daniel said after Weinberger's account of this latest incident.
The Pentagon announced last month that on Jan. 17 an Israeli Jeep "nudged" a Marine while trying to push through a checkpoint near the Beirut airport.
Defense sources subsequently told The Washington Post of another incident where a Marine raised his rifle against an Israeli soldier and was ordered to put it down. The Pentagon at first strongly denied the report, and later said it could not rule out that it had happened.
Defense sources said after the first denial was issued that the rifle incident was reported to the Pentagon but was not considered serious enough to be communicated to Weinberger or Gen. John W. Vessey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The Joint Chiefs, particularly Marine Corps Commandant Robert H. Barrow, are become increasingly anxious about the seemingly open-ended stay of the Marines in Lebanon.
Nicholas A. Veliotes, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern and South Asian affairs, told a House Foreign Affairs subcommitee yesterday that it was his "personal guesstimate" that the Marines, now a force of 1,200 on land and another 600 on ships off Beirut, would have to stay in Lebanon another year. Their second deployment there began in late September, with the administration predicting that they would be out by Christmas.
Asked about the Marines' stay, Vessey said in an interview yesterday that it cannot help but cut into the readiness of Marines to rush to other trouble spots, adding, "It's a job that the nation, at least the president, wants done, and we're going to do it."