Lisbon woos Arabs, closes Azores to future airlift of US arms to Israel

Portugal's courtship of the Arabs is yielding oil, but it bodes ill for Israel should any new conflict break out between the Jewish state and its neighbors.

Following promises secured during a Gulf tour by Prime Minister Francisco Pinto Balsemao that the United Arab Emirates would double oil deliveries to Portugal next year, the Lisbon government has gently begun shutting a door that helped save Israel militarily in the 1973 Yom Kippur war.

Portuguese Foreign Minister Andre Goncalves Pereira, who was in Washington for talks with US Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. in March, has been assuring Arab leaders that in any new Middle East conflict, the Azores Islands would not be available to the United States for ferrying arms to Israel.

In 1973, when the rest of Washington's European allies refused the United States the necessary facilities to mount an arms airlift to Israel, the Portuguese discreetly obliged.

The Portuguese regime at that time was isolated and discredited. And it needed all the foreign support it could get for its unpopular colonial war in Africa.

But the governments which succeeded the regime overthrown in the April 1974 revolution have always remembered that the price Portugal paid for such support was too high: the Arabs cut off all oil supplies to punish the Portuguese for bailing out Israel.

Turning its back on the policies of a socialist government which allowed Israel to open an embassy in Lisbon in 1977, Portugal's new center-right government is wooing the Arabs for all the oil this energy-starved country can get.

The Prime Minister always insisted before coming to power that good relations with the Arabs would depend on Portugal's attitude toward the Palestinian question. The secretary-general of the Arab League, Chedli Klibi, left here April 26 after discussing the opening of a league office here, seen as the first step toward opening a Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) mission in Lisbon.

Foreign Minister Pereira said in a recent television interview that he had assured Arab leaders that the US Lajes airbase in the Azores would never again be used against the Arabs.

It is Lajes that the United States wants to have as a staging post to reach forward bases, such as Egypt's Ras Banas, with its new Rapid Deployment Force in the event of any Middle East conflict. Formal negotiations with the Portuguese are expected to start later this year.

The new Portuguese line is that it will allow the United States to use Lajes to reach the Middle East, but only as part of a concerted NATO action, for instance to protect the West's vital interests in the event of a new flareup in the Gulf oil states.

Having learned its bitter lesson in 1973 when the Caetano government's solidarity with the US only helped hasten the revolution, the new Portuguese administration is determined that it will stay under the NATO umbrella in any new Middle East fighting and adopt the same position as its European -- rather than American -- allies.

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