Mira Avrech
August 10, 1981 12:00 PM

Two months ago, in a moment of dejection, Philip Habib exclaimed, “I am probably the most hated American around.” He may have been right. The 61-year-old U.S. diplomat had been shuttling among the governments of the Middle East, seeking to mediate the missile crisis between Syria and Israel. And just when Habib had the Arabs’ trust and a solution in hand, the Israelis had enraged the Muslim world anew by bombing a nuclear reactor in Iraq. Subsequently Israeli warplanes struck at another Arab enemy: the Palestine Liberation Organization, holed up in Beirut, Lebanon. In the process 300 civilians were killed and 800 injured. The PLO retaliated with rocket attacks on Israel, killing six and wounding 54. Yet Habib persisted in his efforts to halt the carnage, and last week he managed at least a stopgap measure, a cease-fire along the Israeli-Lebanon border.

More trouble surely lies ahead. As one Middle Eastern official puts it: “The fire-engine approach to the fighting is quite all right—as far as it goes. But Habib faces immense, fundamental problems.” How Habib plans to translate a fragile truce into permanent peace is a mystery that the taciturn diplomat typically is not explaining. “Very few people know how he worked his magic,” a Washington insider notes.

Unlike Henry Kissinger, his predecessor in shuttle diplomacy, Habib has moved from country to country in a small U.S. military aircraft, accompanied only by a secretary and a Deputy Assistant Secretary of State. On Kissinger’s forays as Secretary of State, his entourage filled a jetliner, and the press occupied several floors of the best hotels in each country, turning their ballrooms into pressrooms, complete with telexes and overseas phones. In contrast, when reporters pester Habib for details, he simply smiles and says: “It’s still silent movies, boys.” Then he retires to the local U.S. embassy, where he dines with colleagues and tries to clear his head by discussing what he terms “essential matters”—for example, his love for French food and wine.

Nothing in Philip Habib’s upbringing prepared him for a career in international politics. His background was more blue-collar than striped-pants: the son of a Lebanese Catholic grocer, he grew up in a Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn. He worked in a sheet-metal factory before attending the University of Idaho and earning an economics Ph.D. at Berkeley. Then in 1949 he entered the largely uppercrust Foreign Service, and 31 years later he has turned his background into a diplomatic asset. “Being a Lebanese,” says one Middle Eastern admirer, “he understands the high emotional temperature here—and he can handle things other Western diplomats find confusing.” In Jerusalem, Habib charmed Prime Minister Menachem Begin by recounting Jewish jokes and exclaiming, “How wonderful at last to be able to speak Yiddish and talk with my hands.” He also used humor to score serious points: “Can I ask you not to bomb my parents’ home?” (The house once occupied by his parents still stands in Sidon, Lebanon.) Well acquainted with the oblique line of Levantine conversation, Habib recently jested about a meeting with Lebanese Christian leader Bashir Gemayel: “He said ‘A,’ so I knew that what he really meant was ‘B.’ Accordingly, I answered ‘C’ ”

Kissinger also was a master of such convoluted reasoning. According to former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Simcha Dinitz, Kissinger and Habib combine “Oriental shrewdness, American efficiency and Jewish wisdom. Both can take a complex issue and simplify it, as well as take a simple issue and cloud it.”

Habib served as Kissinger’s Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs from 1976 to 1978. Before that he had worked his way up from minor embassy jobs in Canada and New Zealand to the second highest position in the American Embassy in wartime Saigon, then scored high marks as Ambassador to South Korea. And for three years he was a senior adviser at the Vietnam peace talks in Paris. But overwork eventually led to four heart attacks and open-heart surgery, which forced Habib to retire in 1979. Since then he has been called back often for special projects, but none more important than his current assignment.

To safeguard his health, Habib tries to go to bed early, preferring to read a book or take a walk rather than attend social functions. While at home in Belmont, Calif, with Marjorie, his wife of 38 years, he golfs avidly, if not very well.

Not surprisingly, his family (he has two daughters, aged 26 and 29) frets at the strain of his diplomatic shuttling. Daughter Susan tries to videotape all the newscasts of her father. “Every time he comes on, I study his face to see how he looks,” she explains. “Does he look a little green around the edges? Has he gained weight?” He’s been looking tired, she notes, but seems to be in an excellent mood. In fact, she says, “He looks like he’s about to deliver a punch line.” Last week he did.

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