Israeli leaders today softened official reaction to Syria's deployment of SA2 surface-to-air missile batteries close to the Lebanese border, suggesting that Syria can keep the missiles where they are as long as it does not use them against Israeli reconnaissance flights.
Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin said there is no compelling political or military objective at present that would justify Israel's attacking missiles on Syrian soil.
Last night, Israeli military leaders had spoken menacingly of an "extremely dangerous situation," and drew a parallel between the Syrian missile deployment three weeks ago and a similar move in 1982 that prompted Israeli air attacks on Syrian missile batteries along the Lebanese border. Those attacks came shortly before the Israeli invasion of Lebanon.
Rabin, in a speech in Jerusalem to war widows and orphans, said today, however, that "without an aggressive attack [by Syria], there is no meaning in pressing for an initiative of war."
He said that the introduction of sophisticated weaponry into the Middle East had precluded "easy and pointless wars," and he stressed that Israeli military preparedness should be geared to swift reaction to aggression.
Earlier, senior Israeli officials confirmed that Israel had conveyed through U.S. diplomatic channels a warning to Syria to remove smaller SA6 and SA8 surface-to-air missiles that had been deployed in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley on the Beirut-Damascus Highway.
Syria today dismissed the Israeli protests about the missiles, with Al Baath, the official newspaper of the ruling party, saying that the SA2s are inside Syrian territory and that the government will not be intimidated by Israeli threats. "Syria is not alone in the battle," it said, in an apparent reference to the Soviet Union, its chief arms supplier.
The Israeli Army command announced last night that the Syrians had moved three concentrations of SA2 medium-range missiles close to the Lebanese border, jeopardizing Israel's ability to conduct high-altitude reconnaissance flights over most of the Bekaa Valley and northern Lebanon.
The Israelis contended that pro-Syrian Palestinian guerrilla groups are most active in the area protected by the "umbrella" of Soviet-supplied SA2 missiles.
Military sources said that the purpose of last night's warning was to signal Damascus that while Israel may tolerate the presence of the missiles -- which are all in Syrian territory -- it will not tolerate their use against Israeli reconnaissance flights over Lebanon. The suggestion was that the flights will continue, although Israeli military sources refused to confirm this.
Abba Eban, chairman of parliament's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, said today that there was no justification for an Israeli attack on the missile sites now.
"We have to put up with the fact that other people have sovereign territory in which they can do what they like, and one cannot possibly have any influence on what sovereign countries do in their territory," Eban said today on state radio. He added, "I'm sure Syria would love to be able to tell us where to put our missiles in such a way so as not to have any influence on Syrian territory."
Eban said he saw no evidence that Syria was seeking a military confrontation with Israel.
He said the Syrian deployment "apparently is a reaction to an erroneous act on our part in bringing down two Syrian aircraft on Syrian soil, I believe under a misapprehension." He was referring to an air battle Nov. 19 in which two Syrian MiG19s were shot down in Syrian airspace by Israeli jets that had been conducting surveillance over Lebanon.
Official sources said that after the Nov. 19 incident, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard W. Murphy, visiting the region at the time, conveyed an Israeli message to Syrian leaders that the downing of the two Syrian jets was not based on a political decision, but was done on the initiative of a "local commander" who may have misjudged the threat posed by Syrian aircraft approaching the Israeli planes at high speed.