Israel offers peace but retains option of force: Government prepares public opinion for possible escalation as fears grow over international condemnation

IN ITS first serious peace offer since the start of the fighting in Lebanon, Israel last night offered the United States a deal, saying it would accept a ceasefire if Washington found a way to persuade Syria to remove its support for Hizbollah. At the same time, however, Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli Prime Minister, qualified the offer with the threat of greater military force should diplomacy fail.

Showing that it is prepared to move towards a ground war if necessary, Israel yesterday moved an armoured column on to Israeli-controlled land in southern Lebanon. The show of strength may be calculated to put pressure not only on the Hizbollah gunmen but also on the US to intervene diplomatically.

The offer of a truce was made by Mr Rabin in talks with US leaders yesterday. Israel hopes the US has enough leverage to persuade President Hafez al-Assad of Syria to curb the Islamic radicals. In particular, the US could offer to remove Syria from the list of countries sponsoring terrorism and offer aid in return for co-operation over Hizbollah, Israeli sources said.

Yesterday's deployment of the armoured column followed indications that the government is preparing Israeli public opinion for the possibility that the five-day-old air, sea and artillery assault may develop into a ground offensive.

Military chiefs told Israeli radio that gunmen of the pro-Iranian Hizbollah were increasing their presence in the south, suggesting that more drastic measures may yet be needed. A former head of the Northern Command military region, Yossi Peled, a reserve general, said on Israeli television last night that the objective of curbing Hizbollah may be impossible to achieve without sending in ground forces. But military analysts said Mr Rabin did not have the support of the Cabinet for such a move. The US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, arrives in Israel at the weekend on a tour intended to push forward the peace process.

Instead, the talks are certain to centre on how to end Israel's most intensive raids into Lebanon since 1982. Israel's Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres, yesterday said Israel wanted to stop the fighting before Mr Christopher arrived. But he and Mr Rabin stressed that this could only come about after Hizbollah had ceased its rocket attacks across Israel's northern border.

However, there was no sign that Hizbollah was reconsidering its stance: several Israelis were injured yesterday when Katuysha rockets fell on northern settlements.

In Jerusalem, concern was expressed about the latest condemnation of Israel's attack by Washington, when the State Department explicitly accused Israel of harming Lebanon's civilian population. Israeli officials are particularly nervous about any attempts to compare policy in Lebanon with 'ethnic cleansing'.