Washington (May. 27)
President Reagan summoned back to Washington today his special Middle East envoy, Philip Habib, for consultations on the “progress” of Habib’s efforts to defuse the conflict over Lebanon. Habib, who will see the President after he arrives here tomorrow, is expected to return to the Mideast by next week.
Both Reagan and the State Department took pains to deny that Habib’s mission had been a failure in the wake of reports Habib was returning after Saudi Arabia had failed in efforts to convince Syria to accept the proposal to remove its SAM-6 anti-aircraft missiles from Lebanon in return for decreased Israeli reconnaissance flights. Habib had been in Jerusalem since Saturday, apparently waiting for an answer to the Saudi effort.
Reagan said today that Habib had done “a remarkable job” since having been sent to the Mideast three weeks ago. He noted that at the time, when the veteran diplomat was summoned out of retirement to go to the area, it appeared that Israel and Syria “were on the verge of war and that has not happened.”
This view was #choed by the State Department. “When Ambassador Habib set out for the Middle East, it was widely believed that there was an imminent prospect of open conflict, open hostilities,” David Passage, a State Department spokesman, said. “We have now gone three weeks without actual outbreak of widespread fighting.”
WON’T TERM MISSION A FAILURE
Passage stressed that “while it would probably be premature to say the mission was a success, it certainly would be incorrect to say it was a failure.” He also said that while the seriousness of the
situation had not lessened, there has been a commitment from “all the principal leaders in the area” to go on record as being against armed conflict.
The Department spokesman stressed that Habib’s mission was still continuing since he had only been called back to Washington because the President wanted to consult with him. While Reagan was vacationing over the weekend in California, the White House said that the President had not personally talked with Habib since Habib left for the Middle East.
Passage noted that Habib had “worked very hard” on his mission. Habib had made several trips between Beirut, Damascus and Jerusalem and, last week, a side trip to Riyadh.
SHORT-RANGE, LONG-RANGE AIMS
Habib’s mission will continue to be an effort to “bring about a return to normalcy,” in the short-range, Passage said. He explained that this meant defusing the threat of war. He said the long-range aim of the U.S. was, as Secretary of State Alexander Haig said last Friday, a return to the “status quo ante” as it has existed in Lebanon since 1976.
While this was not spelled out, Passage obviously was referring to the situation before the Syrian army attacked the Christian village of Zahle and took control of two strategic mountain tops in the Sannine mountain range. This was followed by the Israel Air Force shooting down two Syrian helicopters believed to be attacking a Christian village which Syria then used as an excuse to move the SAM missiles into Lebanon.
Passage continued to maintain that Saudi Arabia has “played a helpful role” in the U.S. effort to defuse the situation in Lebanon. But he refused to comment on a statement this week by the Saudi Ambassador to Lebanon, who said Saudi Arabia backed the Syrians and the Palestinians in the Lebanese conflict.
HUSSEIN SUPPORTS SOVIET PROPOSAL
Meanwhile, in other Mideast related developments, King Hussein of Jordan, who arrived yesterday in Moscow, said at a Kremlin dinner that he supports the Soviet proposal “for convening an international conference on the Middle East with the participation of the Palestine Liberation Organization as an equal partner with other sides.”
Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev told the dinner guests that “it is high time to settle the Middle East conflict as a whole.” He said that Moscow’s goal in seeking international negotiations was “a just and durable peace” and good relations with all countries in the region. He stressed that this included Israel “if, naturally, it abandons the policy of seizing other peoples’ lands and follows a peaceful, rather than an aggressive policy.”
The Soviet proposal for an international conference on the Mideast to be led by the USSR and the United States was first issued by Brezhnev earlier this year at the congress of the Soviet Communist Party.