Jerusalem (May. 27)
U.S. special envoy Philip Habib left Israel for Washington today, recalled by President Reagan for “consultations” before resuming his efforts to find a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Syrian missile crisis.
Habib, who has been shuttling between Jerusalem and Arab capitals since May 9, stressed that he will be back in the region in a week and that his 18 days of shuttle diplomacy convinced him that none of the parties wanted war. In a brief statement to reporters at Ben Gurion Airport, before his departure, Habib said, “President Reagan has asked me to return to Washington for consultations preparatory to my continuing my mission in the region. Therefore I am leaving today for talks in Washington, arriving there tomorrow. I will return to the region next week.”
SAYS EFFORTS TO DEFUSE TENSIONS WILL CONTINUE
He added, “It will be obvious from what I have said that diplomatic efforts to defuse the tensions in the area and to bring about a peaceful solution to the problem will continue.” He appealed for maximum restraint by all parties to allow him to bring his mission to a successful conclusion.
Earlier in the day, Habib met with Premier Menachem Begin to brief him on progress to date. It was their first meeting in several days. Although Habib has been in Israel since the weekend he maintained silence on the status of his mission. Begin told reporters after their meeting that the diplomatic efforts to solve the missile crisis would continue but so far they have borne no fruit.
CRUCIAL ROLE OF SAUDIS
During the past few days, the fate of Habib’s mission seemed to hang on the results of discussions in Riyadh between Saudi Arabian leaders and Rif Al-Assad, brother of President Hafez Assad of Syria. Rif was dispatched to the Saudi capital on an unidentified mission which observers here interpreted as a sign that the Syrians were still willing to negotiate.
But as of noon today, there were no indications of the outcome of his talks. The Voice of Israel Radio reported today that the Saudis were trying, so far without success, to convince Syria to withdraw its SAM-6 anti-aircraft missiles from the Beka valley in central Lebanon.
Habib himself flew to Riyadh over a week ago to enlist Saudi help in defusing the missile crisis, a move that infuriated Begin at the time. But Israeli circles appear now to acknowledge that Saudi Arabia wields influence in Damascus and the U.S. apparently placed high hopes on their successful intervention with President Assad.
Observers here suggested today that Habib’s recall to Washington for “consultations” was intended in part to remove the growing impression that his mission was stalemated or had failed altogether, a situation that could lead to an outbreak of hostilities between Israel and Syria. For the past two days the American envoy had been reported resting in Jerusalem or playing golf at Caeseria with U.S. Ambassador Samuel Lewis. Begin’s inability to contact him led the Premier to publicly express annoyance at the lack of information.
SYRIA PREPARING SITES NEAR ISRAEL
Meanwhile, the Army Radio quoted well informed sources today as saying that Syria began preparing for possible hostilities with Israel several months ago, well before the missile crisis erupted. The sources said the Syrians prepared sites for their heavy artillery about 20 miles north of the Israeli border.
Experts noted that the artillery deployment indicated planned infantry movement since the Syrian army acts according to Soviet military doctrine which calls for massive artillery support for ground troops. The experts said the scope of the artillery deployment was such that the infantry could be used for either offensive or defensive operations.