As Reagan gallops out of west, Mideast jockeys for position

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

What is the Middle East's image of Ronald Reagan? Photos and cartoons of the US President-elect grace the pages of newspapers throughout the Middle East. He is shown most often in a Stetson hat or on horseback.

The image conveyed to readers is that of a "cowboy president," a latter-day Teddy Roosevelt. And it is this image, contrasted with the usually shy, meek image of Jimmy Carter held in this part of the world, that is stimulating discussion in cafes, markets, and bazaars.

At the same time, many in the Mideast see rapidly changing roles for major actors in the Arab-Israeli conflict with the advent of the new president. Mr. Reagan's known positions and comments are being recalled. Among the changing roles:

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* Palestinians outside the occupied West Bank: Embittered by President-elect Reagan's October statement that the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) is a "band of thugs" with whom the United States will not deal, the PLO finds itself more out in the cold than ever.

An Arab mandate drawn up at a summit conference in Rabat, Morocco, in 1974 gave Yasser Arafat's PLO sole leadership of Palestinian Arabs. Thus there is considerable weight behind the PLO claim that it is the party the US must deal with if it wishes to achieve a lasting peace in the region.

From Rabat onward, the PLO embarked on a diplomatic offensive. More than 100 nations now give it some form of recognition, and during the Carter administration contacts were begun with Washington.

The slow turning toward diplomacy is in danger of being submerged in a wave of cynicism, anti-Americanism, and ultimately a return to terrorism. PLO hard-liners this week stepped up predictions of an Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon. Such a move, says a PLO spokesman, would be an Israeli way of testing Mr. Reagan's sympathies.

PLO "foreign minister" Farouk Khaddoumi set the tone of PLO pessimism in a recent interview by declaring that the Reagan presidency would lead to a new war in the Middle East. But Mr. Kaddoumi says the President-elect was "the lesser of two evils" and will be easier to figure out than Mr. Carter has been.

* Egyptians: Publicly, Egyptian officials welcome the Reagan presidency and talk of having long urged a stronger US military role in the area. But privately they admit concern over Mr. Reagan's reluctance to consider bringing the PLO into Palestinian autonomy negotiations and over his inclination to put hope in Jordan as the key to the Middle East.

The Egyptians are chagrined that the risks they took at Camp David and the price (distancing themselves from the rest of the Arab world) may be tossed off lightly by the Reagan administration. In September Mr. Reagan characterized Egypt as a "secondary link" in Western security that "cannot substitute for a strong Israel."

President Sadat's relationship with President Carter was money in the bank for Egypt. The account is now almost empty. But Mr. Sadat, his aides say, is confident that in time he can develop a personal relationship with Mr. Reagan. For the moment, however, Egypt finds itself an uncomfortable distance away from the incoming President.

* Lebanese: Some factions, such as the Maronite Christian Falangists, welcome Mr. Reagan as a man who might easily become sympathetic to their cause, which they describe simply as "Christian vs. Muslim." During the election campaign, Mr. Reagan seemed to adopt this view. On Oct. 15 he called the continuing Lebanese conflict "in effect, a religious war."

But Arab socialists, Palestinians, and rank-and-file Lebanese actually are a mixture of Muslims and Christians in a pastiche of sects. The Falangists, these groups charge, are using the religious guise for what essentially are motives ranging from anti- Palestinianism to elitism.

It also will be necessary for the Reagan administration to understand the sundry aims of more than two dozen factions that hold some degree of power in this tense, troubled nation -- and understand what Lebanon's flashpoint is.

* Israelis and residents of occupied territories: The Begin government of Israel is using Mr. Reagan's Oct. 16 statement -- "Israel is the military offset to the Soviet Union" -- to align itself with the coming administration. Mr. Begin in New York this past weekend repeatedly called attention to the Soviet threat, as seen especially by his government in stronger Soviet-Syrian ties.

This argument could be used within the Israeli Knesset (parliament) to pave the way for annexation of the strategic occupied Golan Heights on the Syrian border. The Begin government also is heartened by Mr. Reagan's stand on the occupied West Bank (March 24: "I believe in the right of settlements in the West Bank.")

Already there appears to be rising tension on the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Two Arab leaders thought sympathetic to Israel were assassinated Nov. 18, and Israeli soldiers wounded a number of Palestinian youths in street demonstrations in Bethlehem and Ramallah. Last week Israeli authorities shut down Bir Zeit University because it held a Palestinian cultural exhibit.

* Jordanians: Long considered the key to a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace by Western diplomats and political analysts, Jordan now finds itself in the limelight. But King Hussein, occupied with his support of Iraq in the Gulf and his attempts to force enough Arab unity to hold an Arab summit conference Nov. 25 in Amman, Jordan, has remained quiet about the hope the Reagan administration puts in him.

Jordan last month moved to increase its influence over the Israeli-occupied (and formerly Jordanian-governed) West Bank by setting up a West Bank affairs section to be headed by a minister of state for occupied lands. Discussions have been held with the PLO over distribution of funds to the West Bank through this office.

Although the Rabat decision gave the PLO sole status among Arab states over the West Bank, King Hussein has continued his contacts in the occupied territories.

But there is no reason yet to believe that Jordan's King is prepared to join Egypt in its maverick path toward Israel or to diverge from his often-stated rejection of any partial peace (such as Camp David). King Hussein continues to be willing to support only a comprehensive settlement and a return of Israel to its 1967 boundaries.

Mr. Reagan's two-week vacation at his ranch in California just after his Nov. 4 victory seems to have left Middle East opinionmakers to react to only the few Reagan statements concerning them.

Almost all leaders in the area admit that these statements probably will be modified before and after Mr. Reagan's Jan. 20 inauguration, but they feel they nevertheless indicate a new thrust in American foreign policy with which they must deal.

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