As Reagan gallops out of west, Mideast jockeys for position
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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:
* 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."