The sudden resignation of Robert G. Neumann from his post as United States Ambassador to Saudi Arabia after only two months of service in that post is an example of how much trouble there is going to be over shaping the next step in the evolution of US policy toward the Middle East.
Ambassador Neumann did not resign that post willingly or happily. He was pushed out. He was pushed out peremptorily, over a matter which was partly personal but arose out of differences over future Middle East policy.
The ambassador's views as reported by friends and associates are on the side of improving US relations with the Arab countries. This inevitably would mean putting restraints on Israel's territorial expansionism.
In a television interview recently Secretary of State Alexander Haig answered in an ambiguous manner questions about the holding up of delivery of US warplanes to Israel. Were they being held back as a means of restraining Israel from further military acts such as the bombing raid which destroyed Iraq's nearly finished nuclear reactor? The secretary at one point said, "we have been very careful not to link these two issues." But then he added: "That does not for the moment suggest that they are not broadly interrelated in the context of events in the Middle East."
So were the two related, or not related?
The ambassador is reported to have commented less than approvingly of his superior officer's lack of clarity on the subject. He was fired. Was he fired because he was reported to have been critical of the secretary or because the secretary thought he had overstepped the bounds on Middle East policy?
Only Secretary Haig could answer that question. The official State Department version is that Mr. Neumann resigned for personal and family reasons.
There are likely to be many more controversies about Middle East policy before the government in Washington works out a long-term program for attempting to complete the work which President Carter initiated at Camp David.
The Camp David formula called for autonomous self- rule for the Arabs of the territories overrun by Israeli armed forces during the 1967 war and occupied by them ever since. The effect of implementing that Carter formula would have been to limit Israel more or less to its pre-1967 territories -- as contemplated by United Nations Resolution 242.
Prime Minister Begin has never committed himself to limits on Israel's expansion beyond those pre-1967 borders. He continues to speak of the West Bank as "Judea and Samaria." He has announced the annexation of an expanded East Jerusalem -- an action which has not been recognized by any other government. And he had until the cease-fire of July 20 been conducting a military offensive in Lebanon which was pushing Israel's military frontiers deep into that unhappy country.
That cease-fire of July 20 was induced by Washington. It put a temporary stop to Mr. Begin's forward military strategy. It cleared the way for a turn back to Camp David -- if the Reagan administration is ready to take that step. But is it?
The issue behind all this now is, as it has been all along, the location of Israel's permanent frontiers. Is Israel someday going to settle back within the frontiers which world opinion has accepted -- the pre-1967 frontiers? Or is it going to annex the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights which world opinion does not accept and which the Arabs never will accept?
President Reagan has put an immediate stop to Mr. Begin's military expansionism. He has to make the stop permanent if he is going to be able to move ahead with his plans for closer association with the Arab states. He will have to have that closer cooperation if he is going to be able to build an effective system of defense of Southwest Asia against Soviet expansion.
But to get Arab cooperation he must adopt a long-term policy of restricting Israel largely to its pre-1967 frontiers (minor frontier adjustments have always been contemplated).
There are plenty of people in the government and in the State Department who believe that now is the time to adopt a policy which would seek Israel's security without annexation. But there are also strong voices who feel that Israel can achieve security and permanence only within broader frontiers. Mr. Neumann's job in Saudi Arabia is an early casualty in the struggle over the shaping of a new long -term policy for the Middle East.