Washington — a normally reticent Saudi Arabia is now engaged in one of the most ambitious diplomatic efforts it has undertaken in years. For the moment at least, the Saudis are playing the lead diplomatic role in attempting to resolve the Lebanon crisis. Saudi envoys have been shuttling in and out of Beirut, Damascus, and Washington.
The head of Saudi intelligence, Prime Turki al-Faisal, is currently in Washington on an unpublicized mission, during which he is to meet with high-ranking American officials. On an earlier mission, he met with President Reagan.
US officials are reluctant to comment on the Saudi peace effort, partly because of the usual Saudi sensitivities but also partly because any open American backing for the effort could damage or destroy it.
Clovis maksoud, the Arab League's envoy to the United States and to the United Nations, described Saudi Arabia's peacemaking initiative as an attempt to implement the 21-nation Arab League resolution on the Lebanon crisis.
The Israeli attitude toward the current Saudi diplomatic effort was unclear. Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin has harch words for an earlier phase of the Saudi peacemaking effort, but then he seemed to soften his tone.
The harsh comments came on May 18, when Mr. Begin said that Saudi Arabia was "not capable of playing any useful role whatsoever." Calling its government corrupt, Begin said Saudi Arabia was "a family, not a country." This was followed by an approach from the State Department, whose spokesman, Dean Fischer , on May 19 called on all sides to restrain their rhetoric.
according to an American close to Saudi thinking on the subject, the Saudi peacemaking effort is long-range and comprehensive. It has already entailed a renewal of payments to Syria, reported to come to more than $50 million, for maintenance of the so-called Arab deterrent force in Lebanon. Other Arab forces might be brought back into the force once again to give it a truly Arab nature. But also as part of the deal, Syrian missiles would have to be withdrawn. In order to save face for the Syrians, this would not take place right away. Israel would have toreduce its overflights. Meanwhile, the Saudis would help provide the Arab "umbrella" for a Syrian pullback of the missiles to points just across the border inside Syria.
according to William B. Quandt, former Middle east director for the US National Security Council staff, the Saudi diplomatic effort is not unprecedented. Dr. Quandt said that during their peacemaking effort in Lebanon in 1976-77, the Saudis had worked in a comprehensive manner, trying in a way that was not well publicized at the time to lay the groundwork for an arab-Israeli peace settlement.
Quandt, who is now directing a major study on Saud Arabia for the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., said the current Saudi effort is likely to have several aims, one of which is to "send a signal" of goodwill to the Reagan administration in Washington. The Saudis also have an interest in the crisis, he said.
"The danger is in overestimating what the Saudis can do . . . in making them the key," hea said. He added that the Saudis help with the financial side pf diplomacy, can show restraint on oil policy, anc can do "a few invited things in Arab politics."
"But they don't want to be blamed when the whole thing falls apart," he said.
Other specialists, who asked not to be identified, agreed while the Saudis are pursuing a serious peacemaking effort, their influence should not be overstimated. They cannot do the job alone, the specialists say.
The continuing precariousness of the Lebanon situation was dramatized May 28 when Israeli jets stuck targets only 13 miles south of Beirut. In their first raid into Lebanon since Syria moved soviet-supplied surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) into that country, the Israelis claimed to have destroyed a Libyan-operated SAM-9 battery. They also bombed a nearby Palestinian guerilla base, according to the Israeli military command. The targets were only about 30 miles west of the SAM batteries installed by the Syrians in the Bekaa Valley near the Syria-Lebanon border.
The initial reaction at the US State Department was that the Israeli air strikes were not necessarily related to the crisis surrounding the Syrian SAMs or to the success or failure of efforts on envoy Philip Habib o defuse that crisis. The Syrian SAMs are a good deal more sophisticated that the ones the Libyans are reported to be manning. But Israel's show of force may have been meant in part to convey a signal to the Syrians that they must not trifle with Israel.
Mr. Maksoud said that in his view the Israeli air strike had a different meaning.
"Israelis are trying to show that the Habib mission cannot succeed without underwriting Israeli objectives -- that is, without underwriting as Israeli free hand," said Maksoud.