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Saudis stick to words, not swords, in challenging Israel

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Saudi Arabia is still convinced that a diplomatic flanking movement, not military confrontation, is the only way of challenging Israel.

The kingdom's ubiquitous, white-robed princes have been making that point to the more radical Arabs of the Middle East both before and after the Arab summit in Morocco collapsed last November, and since Israel's virtual annexation of the Golan Heights in December.

The Saudi plan that embodies this view is Crown Prince Fahd's eight-point proposal, which would trade Arab recognition of Israel for Israeli withdrawal from land it captured in 1967 and for establishment of a Palestinian state.

There are three important Arab countries that have needed Saudi convincing. These are Libya, Iraq, and Syria. This is how the Saudis are approaching the three:

* Libya and Saudi Arabia are preparing to restore diplomatic relations, which were cut in 1980. By ending rhetorical hostilities with Col. Muammar Qaddafi, and possibly by supporting Colonel Qaddafi in his disputes with the Reagan administration, the Saudis are seeking to neutralize Libyan objections to the Fahd plan.

* Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states are stepping up their financial and moral backing of Iraq in the face of its costly war with Iran. By aiding President Saddam Hussein on what he sees as ''the eastern front of the Arab homeland,'' the Saudis may be able to remove Iraqi objections to letting the Saudis lead the diplomatic maneuvering against Israel.

* And most importantly, Syria, which was primarily responsible for the collapse of the Moroccan summit, is being assured a hearing -- at a future resumed summit -- of its argument that should diplomacy fail, military confrontation should be used against Israel.

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