Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres said today that Syria has moved surface-to-air missile batteries back into Lebanon, but he said Israel was determined not to fuel an escalation of tension over the issue.
Peres said Israel is seeking a return to the "status quo," apparently meaning that diplomatic efforts again are under way to try to persuade Syrian President Hafez Assad to order the removal of the missiles from Lebanon's central Bekaa Valley.
Speaking to Israeli newspaper editors at a luncheon in Tel Aviv, Peres denied reports that there had been a Syrian troop buildup at the strategic Golan Heights and that the Israeli government was trying to avoid making any statements that could lead to a deterioration in the atmosphere between the two countries.
An Army command official suggested that Syria was attempting to test Israel's limits of tolerance -- the "red line" beyond which Damascus will not be allowed to move without retaliation -- and he noted that the truck-mounted SA6 and SA8 batteries could be moved quickly if it was necessary.
"Assad knows Israel's patience is greater now than it was in 1982," the Army source said, alluding to Israel's invasion of Lebanon three years ago. "He knows he can go further now because of internal feelings in Israel and the composition of the [coalition] government, but he also knows exactly when to stop at the red line."
The Israeli military would make no official comment on the reported deployment, but the Army command source said that if Syria had moved SA6 and SA8 mobile missile batteries back into Lebanon just inside the border, the redeployment would not seriously affect Israeli air surveillance of the Bekaa Valley.
Syria deployed a number of SA6 and SA8 missiles along the Damascus-Beirut highway in Lebanon last month after Israeli jets on a reconnaissance mission over Lebanon shot down two Syrian MiG fighters on Nov. 19. However, the missiles were moved back inside Syria several days later, after diplomatic intervention by the United States, Israeli government sources said.
When the initial Syrian missile deployment was first disclosed publicly on Dec. 15, the Army chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Moshe Levy, warned that Israel would not tolerate an infringement on its capability to conduct reconnaissance flights over Lebanon.
The Army official, while refusing to discuss details of the new deployment, said, "If it happened, there is really not much difference in whether they are on the border or six or seven kilometers inside Lebanon. It is not something crucial. We don't like them in either place."
Asked if Israeli jets were still making reconnaissance flights over Lebanon, he replied, "We are continuing to get the information we need. Maybe not as complete as two months ago, but what we consider vital we are getting."
He said that the Air Force was not conducting the same number of reconnaissance flights as before the November missile deployment and that its jets are now flying higher to keep out of range of the SA6s and SA8s, as well as beyond the reach of SA2 medium-range missiles that Syria put into fixed positions just inside its border last month.
Peres said today that Israel was continuing to monitor closely the movement of the SA2 missiles.
An Israeli government official confirmed that the 10-member "inner cabinet" discussed the redeployment of SA6 and SA8 missiles into Lebanon at its regular meeting yesterday and apparently decided not to react to the new Syrian move.
"The Syrians work stage by stage," the official said. "They move, wait for the reaction and move again."
Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin warned last night that Israel would launch a "massive" strike against Arab population centers if Israeli cities are attacked by Arab missiles.