Kremlin tries one-upping US in Middle East

The Soviet Union, with Mideast war drums echoing in the background, is readying a vigorous counterstrike to US diplomacy in that strategic oil region. The Kremlin is understood to be planning talks here by the end of the month with traditionally pro-Western King Hussein of Jordan. Generally well-informed Moscow sources say the Soviets plan formally to announce the visit, and its date , by May 21 or 22.

Diplomats and other analysts caution that a serious worsening of the Syrian-Israeli missile crisis might yet force postponement of the visit. But so far, the these Moscow sources said May 19, all systems were still go.

Most public signs are that the Kremlin, although seizing on the Mideast missile crisis to launch vitriolic propaganda assaults on the United States and Israel, is anxious the the dispute stop short of full-scale war. In the meantime, Arab and Western diplomats concur, the crisis could actually compound Soviet gains from the Hussein visit.

The Mideast dispute has, at least temporarily, lessened Syria's regional isolation -- the current top Soviet ally among the major Arab states. A recent rivalry between King Hussein and the Syrians, who are said to have been instrumental is postponing a planned Hussein visit here late last year, has been shunted into the background.

On the surface at least, the Arab world seems more united than it has been for many months.

The Jordanian King, who has been visiting a number of neighboring states for consultations in recent days, "could now come to Moscow as something close to a consensus representative of much of the Arab world," a senior Western diplomat commented May 19.

"Here we have one of the most potentially dangerous Arab-Israeli crises in recent years. The Americans are visibly trying to mediate. And an important regional leader, generally thought to be close to the West, comes flying to Moscow.

"No matter what concrete elements do or do not emerge from such a visit," the diplomat said, "I don't see how the Soviets can help but look good."

The Kremlin clearly is hoping for more than good looks and would like to use a Hussein visit as a springboard for a challenge to US dominance of Arab-Israeli diplomacy in recent years.

Diplomats here are divided on how much help King Hussein can or will provide the Soviets on the score, especially with Washington in no mood to welcome them back to the Mideast negotiating table.

But if any Arab leader can help, the consensus reasoning goes, it is the Jordanian monarch.

A moderate in Arab terms and long openly friendly with the United States, King Hussein has become increasingly bitter over what he sees as Washington's blindly pro-Israeli policy.

Ruler of the West Bank of the Jordan River until Israel captured the territory in the 1967 Mideast war, the King is seen as a key to any overall Mideast peace settlement.

Feeling betrayed by Egypt's US-sponsored peace with Israel, and convinced that the American's Camp David framework means only continued Israeli control of the West Bank, King Hussein has been calling for a renewed international approach to the Mideast crisis -- including the Soviets.

Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev in effect seconded the motion in an address to the Soviet Communist Party congress here in February.

Only days earlier, as this newspaper reported in early March, the Soviets had privately renewed their invitation for Hussein to visit Moscow.

Diplomats here assume the Soviets want to stress to the King their seriousness in seeking overall Mideast peace, their potential ability to undercut hard-line Arab opposition to such a pact -- and, in return, hope to seal a strong joint endorsement for international talks in which the Kremlin would participate.

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