Special U.S. envoy Philip C. Habib is attempting to piece together an exclusively Arab resolution to the Syrian missile crisis, leaving Israel out of the agreement in any visible way other than to give its tacit approval from behind the scenes once the arrangement is completed.
That negotiating strategy has emerged following Habib's most recent round of talks with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and senior political and military officials over the Syrian deployment of surface-to-air missiles in Lebanon on April 30.
With each passing day of Habib's Middle East shuttle, it is becoming more apparent that public attention has been misdirected toward the prospects of an Israeli-Syrian compromise, instead of the possibility of an Syrian-Lebanese-Saudi Arabian agreement that would have the same result.
Israeli officials involved in the negotiations now acknowledge privately that this is Habib's negotiating tack and that it is in Israel's long-run interest to keep as low a profile as possible while the three Arab states work out the details with Habib. Israeli sources say that could take several weeks.
Why Begin has chosen seemingly to complicate the diplomatic effort with statements like today's demand that the Syricans, besides removing their antiaircraft missiles from Lebanon, also remove those in Syrian territory but near the Lebanese border, defied explanation tonight. [Details on Page A32.]
One possbility is that Begin wants to prolong the negotiations until closer to the June 30 election in hopes of diverting attention here from domestic issues on which he is vulnerable, such as triple-digit inflation and labor difficulties, including a nationwide school strike.
It is to be expected, the Israelis say, that Syrian President Hafez Assad will continue to publicly condemn Israel for aggression in Lebanon, while denying that Syria is considering any compromise proposals that have the imprimatur of Israel. Any other public stance, it is felt, would be unlikely by a state that does not acknowledge the legitimacy of Israel, or by a president facing a shaky political situation at home.
In that context, Assad can continue to declare in his speeches and press conferences, as he did, yesterday, that Habib has brought no Israeli-tainted U.S. proposals from Jerusalem, but that if an Arab plan emerges, it will be decided upon exclusively by Arabs.
Out of public view, Israel would have to be intimately involved both in the formulation of an agreement and in its final approval, particularly on such issues as possible restriction of Israeli air operations in central Lebanon. But if such an accord is kept covert, the Syrians would not have to acknowledge having dealt even indirectly with Israel.
A meeting of Arab foreign ministers in Tunis tomorrow, which is scheduled to take up the Israeli-Syrian confrontation, is likely to give impetus to the concept of an exclusively Arab resolution of the crisis.
For Habib's strategy to work, however, Begin would have to minimize the obvious traces of his influence in the formula -- an enormous expectation, given his loquacity and the tempo of his campaign for reelection.
After meeting with Begin Tuesday, Habib, in his usual taciturn manner, told waiting reporters: "The diplomatic efforts will continue. . . . With the permission of the prime minister I will take my leave."
Habibi darted a quick glance at his aides and seemed to roll his eyes when Begin replied, "Oh, please stay. It will prove interesting." Then Begin stepped to the microphones to make statements asserting Israel's decisive role in the negotiating process and promised that his government would meet the next day to "adopt proper decisions."
Israeli sources said later that in his meeting with Begin, Habib had spelled out in detail his strategy of removing Israel from the negotiating picture as much as possible and turning the effort into more of an inter-Arab process. Habib also was said to have emphasized to Begin the necessity of maintaining as low a profile as possible in order to encourage the Syrians to adopt a posture giving the impression that the Arab states are working out the problem responsibly by themselves, without pressure from Israel.
Indeed, most of the Habib compromise proposals -- termed "ideas" by one diplomatic source -- are constructed in such a way that they appear to be Arab compromises, arrived at independently and bearing no discernible evidence of Israeli input.
For example, Syrian forces and Lebanese Christian militias would disengage in the Sanin Mountain area northeast of Beirut and the Syrian army would cease shelling the Christian city of Zahle. Regular Lebanese Army troops would police the city under an agreement between Syria and Lebanon.
Lebanese President Elias Sarkis would formally request Syria to withdraw its missiles in Lebanon. Syria -- again by indepdent agreement with Lebanon -- would begin a staged withdrawal of the missiles. Saudi Arabia would resume its financial support of the Syrian forces in Lebanon and the United States would negotiate with Syria a new agreement aimed at preventing Syrian military movements in Lebanon likely to provoke Israel and upset the delicate balance of conflicting policy objectives there.
The feature of all these proposals is that Israel would not visibly be involved and Syria would be given the opportunity to activate them without appearing to have negotiated with Israel.
Another proposal, however, raises more serious difficulties for Syria and the United States. That is the question of restrictions on Israeli Air Force operational flights in central Lebanon, especially in the strategic Bekaa Valley, which Syria fears could be used as an enemy attack route. That is where the missiles are deployed.
Begin emphatically denies that there is any proposal to limit Israeli air activity in Lebanon. He says Israel needs to continue surveillance and to disrupt Palestinian guerrilla bases in Lebanon. Syria insists that the Israeli flights alone are enough to justify the presence of the missiles, let alone the April 28 downing of two Syrican helicopters by Israeli jet planes.
In his press conference last night, however, Begin took pains to emphasize that Israel's interest lies not in attacking the Syrians but in maintaining aerial surveillance over all of Lebanon and conducting air strikes only against the Palestinians.
His comments appeared to signal that Israel might be willing to limit its flights over the Bekaa Valley to surveillance only, while dropping "operational" flights against the Syrians.