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Habib Cites Basis for His Return to the Mideast: Says Syrian Missiles in Lebanon is Not a Priority I

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Philip Habib, President Reagan’s special envoy for the crisis in Lebanon, said he would not return to the Middle East until the Arab League’s special committee has a chance to continue its efforts to solve the problems facing Lebanon, both internal and external. Habib also indicated that the missiles Syria has placed in Lebanon is not a priority issue for the United States.

“I think it is in the United States interest, the interest of the people of the region, that the process of dealing with the complexities of Lebanon go on,” Habib told several hundred people at the 35th annual conference of the Middle East Institute which opened last Friday for two days at the Mayflower Hotel. He said that the need now was to “consolidate the gains” made in Lebanon and to reduce the chances of another crisis occurring.

Habib, who had retired from the State Department in 1978 as Assistant Secretary of State for Political Affairs, was sent to the Mideast by Reagan last May after Syria moved SAM-6 missiles into Lebanon and Israel threatened to remove them by force.

The retired diplomat’s remarks came in response to a questioner who asked about Premier Menachem Begin’s statement on a television program while he was in the United States recently in which the Premier said he expected Habib to return to the Middle East soon to get the missiles removed. Habib replied that he will return to the Mideast when the President decides there is “something for me to do.”

Habib said that while the missiles are still a major issue, at least for the contending parties, the major effort was to consolidate the gains made by the cease-fire across the Lebanese border to solve Lebanon’s many internal and external problems.

SAYS PRESENT SITUATION IS CALM

Habib, who was the keynote speaker for the conference, called for moving ahead swiftly on the Mideast peace process. He said the achievements of Camp David were the beginning of the peace process, not the end of it. “The present situation is about as calm as it is ever likely to be, short of a comprehensive settlement,” he noted. He said this is why progress must be made to avoid any new crisis from developing.

He said that the reasons that all sides agreed to the cease-fire across the Lebanese border was that they all realized that unless they worked to “defuse the situation,” they could undo all the progress they had made.

Habib said that the United States has a “unique” position because it is the only major power than can help bring peace to the Middle East. He said the Soviet Union could not do this. He predicted that the autonomy talks, which ended in Cairo Thursday, after two days, will produce results in a few months.

Asked about the lack of a special U.S. negotiator for the autonomy talks, Habib noted that the U.S. Ambassadors to Egypt and Israel, Alfred Atherton and Samuel Lewis, respectively, were experienced in the area and were intimate about every detail of the process.

On other issues, Habib rejected the contention of a member of the audience that the U.S. should end its commitment to Israel to refuse to deal with the Palestine Liberation Organization because it was not legally bound to do so.

Habib said the United States had made a “solemn commitment” which was “reasserted” by four Administrations not to speak to the PLO until it recognizes Israel’s right to exist and accepted United Nations Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338. “The ball is in the PLO court,” Habib said.

Habib said he supports the sale of AWACS reconnaissance planes to Saudi Arabia and believes the sale will not “jeopardize” Israel and that the Saudi “requirements are real.” He had earlier said that the U.S. commitment to the security of Israel “is unchanged from Administration to Administration.”

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