Jerusalem (May. 17)
– American shuttle diplomacy accelerated over the weekend as U. S. special envoy Philip Habib flew to Riyadh yesterday in an attempt to enlist Saudi Arabia’s support in his last ditch efforts to avert a military confrontation between Israel and Syria over Syria’s deployment of SAM-6 anti-aircraft missiles in central Lebanon.
Although Damascus insists that the missiles will not be removed, the Cabinet today unanimously approved Premier Menachem Begin’s recommendation that Israel give Habib additional time–how long was not specified–to seek a peaceful resolution of the crisis.
“We don’t want war,” Begin declared after the Cabinet held its weekly session in camera as a Ministerial Defense Committee. “We shall know much more, perhaps we shall know everything” on Tuesday, Begin said. Habib is due back here Tuesday morning.
Habib’s purpose in visiting Saudi Arabia, after an apparently fruitless third round of talks in Beirut, Damascus and Jerusalem, is to induce the Saudis to bring their powerful influence to bear on President Hafez Assad of Syria for a peaceful solution. Before he left Riyadh this afternoon, the Saudi government published a strong statement of support for the Syrians. At first sign this seemed to indicated that Habib had failed again. The statement condemned Israel’s “expansionist intentions” as revealed by its behavior in Lebanon.
THE ROLE OF SAUDI ARABIA
But there is still hope among observers here that the American envoy may have spurred the Saudis to some action. A Saudi minister was reported to be enroute to Damascus this evening with a personal letter to Assad from Crown Prince Fahd. According to the same report, the Saudi and Syrian Foreign Ministers spoke earlier by telephone.
Israeli observers know that Saudi Arabia has clout in Damascus. Until recently, the Saudis have been paying some $50 million a month to cover the costs of the Syrian peacekeeping force sent to Lebanon in 1976 by the Arab League. That money, side cut off could be a powerful incentive to Assad and his government to accede to Saudi wishes. If the Saudis indeed want the present crisis to end without an outbreak of hostility in the region, they are expected to exert their leverage.
On the other hand, observers here said, the missile crisis and Assad’s hardline stance have already paid handsome dividends for Syria in terms of Arab world support. Both Iran and Iraq, though at war with each other, have publicly expressed support for Syria. So has Jordan and several of the Persian Gulf states.
This represents a radical change inasmuch as Syria has been the pariah of the Arab world in recent months because it was one of the very few Moslem countries to support the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and to side with Iran in its conflict with Iraq.
It remains to be seen whether Assad can capitalize on his diplomatic success without risking military defeat by Israel, observers here said.
HAIG TOLD HABIB TO GO TO RIYADH
Begin disclosed today that Secretary of State Alexander Haig instructed Habib to go to Riyadh, indicating that Washington at least believes a peaceful resolution of the crisis is still possible. Begin said he told Habib, at their last meeting in Tel Aviv Friday, that he could not commit the Cabinet to agree to the American request for “more time” but that he would recommend it. In the event, “Israel has agreed to give more time and another chance” to the diplomatic effort, Begin said.
Habib, a veteran career diplomat called out of retirement by President Reagan to try to defuse the missile crisis, pursued his mission at a frantic pace last week. He arrived in Jerusalem Monday after talks in Beirut and Damascus, left Wednesday for a second round of meetings with Lebanese and Syrian leaders and was back in Israel Thursday and Friday before taking off for Riyadh.
While reports from official and semi-official sources in Damascus did not deviate from Assad’s hard line, well placed Israeli sources have cautioned against taking Syrian statements at face value. They observed that Damascus might be “speaking in two languages, one for local consumption and the other for Habib and the negotiating process.”
Meanwhile, Chief of Staff Gen. Rafael Eitan said on a television interview last Thursday night that Syria is on an “unusually high degree of alert” in both the military and civilian sectors. But their posture is still defensive, he said. He said he was convinced that the Syrian alert was in response to the situation inside Lebanon itself and not a premeditated move to provoke Israel.