The assassination in Cairo last Tuesday of Egypt's President Anwar Sadat has not destroyed fatally or finally the hope in Washington of bringing Arabs and Israelis together in a "strategic consensus" to protect American and allied access to the oil of Arabia.
But it has added to the difficulty of reaching that goal. And it underlines the fact that President Reagan does not yet have a foreign policy team at his disposal in Washington that is adequate to the task.
Remedial action can begin only with a recognition in Washington that the "strategic consensus" is like any stool, chair, or table. It must have at least three legs under it to be able to function. In the Middle East those minimum three legs are Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. With those three in place, others can be attracted.
Former President Carter began the task by reconciling Egypt with Israel. That first essential step has been set back and jeopardized by the loss of President Sadat -- who probably died precisely because he had failed to reconcile Israel with other Arab states.
He was almost certainly killed by Islamic fanaticism fed by the fact that he had made his own peace with Israel without obtaining as compensation at least political self-rule for the Arabs of the territories occupied by Israel since the 1967 war. That failure stood in the way of reconciliation between Israel and Saudi Arabia.
President Reagan's first task is to repair the damage done by the loss of President Sadat. This means reviving confidence among the Arabs that their interests are respected in Washington and will be remembered in future US operations in the Middle East. That in turn will, now more than ever, require conclusion of the sale of modern weapons to Saudi Arabia, even including the AWACS planes.
But conclusion of that affair would be only a beginning. It would keep Saudi Arabia in the status of a potential third leg under the "strategis consensus." To convert the potential into the reality would require months and probably even years of patient and determined diplomacy.
The difficulty was illustrated on the very eve of the assassination. On Monday, only a few hours before President Sadat was struck down, Israel's foreign minister delivered a bitter attack on Saudi Arabia in a speech in New York. He accused the Saudis of "a fanatic hatred of Jews and Israel." He called them a "major obstacle" to a Middle East peace.
But during the previous 12 days an Israeli naval vessel armed with missiles went aground on a reef in Saudi waters. It was allowed by the Saudis to be refloated and taken away. Saudi military forces observed the operation and could have destroyed or captured the vessel.
The recovery by Israel of its ship with Saudi consent was confirmed by the Israeli government the day after the verbal attack on Saudi Arabia by Israel's foreign minister.
President Sadat had bridged the gap between his own country and Israel. He was the best possible bridge for a future reconciliation between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Now Washington will have to find or devise a new bridge and a new formula. But President Reagan's foreign policy team is unharnessed and uncoordinated.
Mr. Reagan has won high praise for his domestic affairs team.
But for foreign affairs there is no such happy or coordinated operation. Secretary of State Alexander Haig conducts one foreign policy. Caspar Weinberger at the Department of Defense pursues conflicting polices almost daily.
Richard Allen is supposed to channel foreign policy differences into the White House for decision. But neither Mr. Haig nor Mr. Weinberger pays him much heed.
Mr. Allen's latest assignment has been to try to sell the AWACS deal in the Senate. But senators are not easily persuaded by a person who seems to carry little weight inside the White House. Add that Vice-President George Bush is officially assigned as foreign policy "crisis manager." Add also that the three principal White house aides -- Meese, Baker, and Deever -- may be superstars in domestic affairs but lack foreign policy background and experience.
President Reagan needs a unified foreign policy team. He must also perfect a formula which would satisfy Israel's yearning for security without alienating the Arabs. Currently Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin apparently seeks Israel's security by expanding territory and backing it with military superiority which he has used freely against Arab neighbors.
Begin's formula is incompatible with the Washington goal of a "strategic concensus." Saudi Arabia, the richest of the Arab countries, is also the custodian of Islam's holiest place, Mecca, and feels a special responsibility toward east Jerusalem.
Reconciliation between Israel and Saudi Arabia was to be the climax of the Camp David process. That climactic achievement still lies glimmering ahead, a will-of-the-wisp, needed, wanted, but unattainable without a new formula and enormous diplomatic effort.
If it could be achieved, then the "strategic consensus" would be a downhill coast. Jordan could accept any formula the Saudis could live with. Iraq could probably be persuaded to come along. It might even be possible to work out a reconciliation between Israel and Syria, although there is the special problem there of rivalry over influence in Lebanon, not to mention over territory on the Golan Heights.
But barring the reconciliation between Israel and Saudi Arabia, the prospect for restabilization of the Middle East is gloomy. Muammar Qaddafi of Libya, the arch troublemaker of the region, is in his element. President Sadat was in his way. President Sadat is gone.
Qaddafi appeals to the radical Muslim fundamentalists and to all the Arab confrontation elements. He preaches a holy war against Israel. The radicals rally to him. Now is his chance to try to become the champion of the Arab cause against Israel, with Soviet backing, of course.
What would the Saudis do if the promise to sell them modern American arms is vetoed by the Senate? The least they would do would be to turn to Western Europe for the arms. But radicalism could be encouraged, eventually unseat the government, and take the country into the Moscow camp.
A substitute for the peacemaker's role is needed, urgently, if the Middle East is to be headed back toward more stability instead of sinking into less stability.