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Mideast diplomacy stays afloat -- despite Habib exit

Although special US envoy Philip C. Habib has returned to Washington for consultation without a Syrian-Israeli agreement in his pocket, there is no feeling that the diplomatic process to end the Lebanese crisis is faltering.

Mr. Habib will return to the Mideast next week to revive the shuttle diplomacy that has taken him to Lebanon, Syria, Israel, and Saudi Arabia these past three weeks. And he appears convinced that all sides to the dispute still wish to avoid hostilities.

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With Mr. Habib's diplomatic forays in the Mideast temporarily suspended, attention now is focused on Saudi Arabian mediation efforts.

Despite Israeli cynicism about the Saudi efforts thus far, King Khalid's meetings with Syrian President Hafez Assad's brother, Col. Rifaat Assad, are seen as a key to resolving the crisis.

Just prior to Mr. Habib's departure, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin told newsmen, "The Saudi efforts did not bear fruit."

Yet while Saudi mediation has shown no public results so far, Mr. Begin conceded on Wednesday that "it may happen that the Saudis and perhaps also some others will come into the process. They will talk to the Syrians."

In another diplomatic move to resolve the crisis, the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Watan said the prime ministers of Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Syria, and Kuwait will meet in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, early next week to discuss the Lebanese situation.

Mr. Begin has also made a point of saying that diplomatic efforts would continue and that he had "not lost hope" that the future would bring better results. Israel, he says, was setting "no time limit," adding that Mr. Habib was welcome to stay in Jerusalem "for months if he wants to."

Sources here note that it took former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger four months to negotiate a disengagement agreement on the Golan Heights between Israel and Syria in 1974.

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Mr. Habib has shuttled without fanfare and with total discretion among Beiruf , Damascus, Riyadh, and Jerusalem for nearly three weeks. He was seeking a formula by which Syria would remove missiles it installed in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley at the end of April in violation of what Israel regards as a tacit understanding with Israel over limits to the Syrian military role in Lebanon.

While his efforts have not yet succeeded -- and at times have seemed perilously close to a breakdown -- his basic approach has become clear and is still being pursued.

In his latest efforts he encouraged the Arab states to try to solve the missile crisis among themselves, thus avoiding the impression of an Israeli "diktat." It was hoped that Lebanese President Elias Sarkis would ultimately make the formal request to President Assad of Syria to remove the missiles. And Saudi Arabia, which has no desire for a war that might strengthen the influence in the region of Syria's ally, the Soviet Union, would encourage the Syrians with large-scale financial aid, reportedly as much as $1 billion.

Israel would reportedly be asked in return to impose some limitations on its regular military flights over Lebanon, probably on "operational" runs against Syrian forces, which Prime Minister Begin has said have been undertaken only in exceptional cases.

Although Mr. Begin stressed the absence of a time limit, he reportedly complained to Mr. Habib that the Syrians are using the extended negotiating period to beef up their military posture at home and in Lebanon. Mr. Begin charged May 27 that Syria had "augmented their missile arrangement" over "the last 24 hours," refusing to specify whether this had taken place within Lebanon or inside the Syrian border. He added that Syria had also been calling up "several tens of thousands of reserves."

Some analysts here believe that Syrian President Assad is playing a sophisticated game of "brinkmanship."

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