LONDON (Apr. 27)
News that Russia has sent 25 SAM-8 ground-to air missile batteries to North Vietnam has seriously weakened U.S. Secretary of State Rogers’ initiative for an interim agreement in the Middle East that would lead to the reopening of the Suez Canal, it was claimed here today. The information was brought by Asian delegates to the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) conference which is being attended by Secretary Rogers. The heads of several delegations were reportedly trying to convince Rogers, who arrived here last night for the SEATO conference, that it was “dangerous” and “futile” to try to force Israel to pull back from the east bank of the Suez Canal so that the waterway could be reopened. The main argument is that a reactivated Suez Canal would remove one of the major obstacles the Soviets have to face in supplying weapons to North Vietnam. The SAM-3 batteries were allegedly for defense of the demilitarized zone against U.S. air raids. British circles at the SEATO conference indicated that their government preferred a final Mideast peace settlement over a temporary arrangement to reopen the canal even though Britain has suffered serious financial loss since the waterway was closed in 1967. American Embassy officials today confirmed Rogers’ plan to visit Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Israel but said the order of his visits was not finally fixed. As of now, Israel is last on the list but changes are still possible, according to sources here. The U.S. will not release a detailed itinerary for security reasons.
Embassy sources stated that Rogers was looking forward to his first Middle East tour but stressed that he was not going there as a “broker” or “middle man.” The purpose of his visit was said to be to “exchange ideas.” The American Secretary of State will discuss the Middle East situation with British Foreign Secretary Sir Alec Douglas-Home. Officials said they planned a “full exchange of ideas” on the subject. Israeli Ambassador Michael Comay visited today Joseph Godber , Minister of State for Middle East affairs at the Foreign Office. The meeting was said by Israeli and British sources to have been concerned solely with an interim arrangement to reopen the Suez Canal. Sources close to the Foreign Office said that Britain was not particularly “excited” over the prospect of re-activating the waterway which was once the most important link in Empire trade. With the Empire gone, the British are more concerned with Soviet penetration into the Indian Ocean which would be greatly facilitated by reopening the canal. The circles said however that Britain would “go along” with any arrangement agreed to by Israel and Egypt, but only because they would have no choice.