Begin Rejects Idea That Saudis Can Help Defuse Missile Crisis

Premier Menachem Begin today scornfully rejected the idea that Saudi Arabia could play any constructive role in American efforts to defuse the Israeli-Syrian missile crisis and indicated surprise that Washington thinks that it can.

Speaking to reporters after meeting with the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Security Committee, Begin offered his first public reaction to U.S. special envoy Philip Habib’s surprise trip to Riyadh over the weekend, apparently to persuade the Saudis to use their influence with Syria for a peaceful resolution of the crisis.

He denounced Saudi Arabia as “one of the most corrupt countries in the world” and said its regime was unstable and likely to collapse at any time, like the Iranian monarchy of the Shah. “I can’t understand how Saudi Arabia can be considered a moderate country when it has declared a holy war against Israel, ” he said.

But former Foreign Minister Abba Eban, a spokesman for the opposition Labor Party, accused Begin of throwing “cold water” on American attempts to ease the crisis. He said if Habib thought it was useful to approach the Saudis, there was no reason for Israel to abandon hope in American mediation efforts. Habib was in Damascus today and is due in Israel tomorrow.

U.S. Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger said on the NBC-TV “Meet the Press” program yesterday that while the Israeli-Syrian situation remains dangerous, “I don’t think it is hopeless by any means. While he (Habib) is there talking to people, there is still substantial hope,” Weinberger said.

The Israeli Cabinet agreed unanimously yesterday to give Habib more time to pursue his mission and set no deadline.

SOVIET U.S. SHIPS LEAVE THE AREA

Meanwhile, a Soviet naval squadron reported cruising off the Lebanese and Syrian coasts over the weekend appeared to have moved away today. A three-ship American naval task force also withdrew. The Soviet and American ships were reported in the vicinity of Crete, within easy steaming distance of the eastern Mediterranean coast, Israeli naval experts said. They declined to say whether Israeli navy units had come within sighting distance of the Russian squadron, headed by the anti-submarine helicopter carrier Moskva.

The Soviet naval presence was not regarded here as an indication of any heightened concern on the part of the Russians over developments in Lebanon. Israeli sources pointed out that several dozen Soviet naval vessels have been in the eastern Mediterranean for some time.

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