Outwitted by the Russians in the Middle East

By , Pat M. Holt, formerly chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, writes on foreign affairs from Washington.

When Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev granted the Palestine Liberation Organization diplomatic status in Moscow, he destroyed with one strike the ''strategic consensus'' which the Reagan administration had been trying to build in the Middle East. This action also demonstrates on a wider scale how the administration's preoccupation with the Soviet threat gets in its way in dealing with the world generally.

The difficulty with making an anti-Soviet strategic consensus the top American priority in the Middle East is that it is not the top priority of the people who live there. Many of these people are indeed concerned about a Soviet threat; they dislike, even fear, the Soviet Union. This is certainly true of Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Lebanon. One suspects these feelings may be shared to a degree, or may come to be shared, even by the radical Arab states - Syria, Iraq, South Yemen, maybe even Libya. In the long run, it will be interesting to see who has been using whom in the Libya-Moscow connection.

But what concerns all of these people even more is the long-festering problem of the Palestinians. As provided in the Camp David agreement, talks are now underway looking to autonomy for the Palestinians living in the Israeli-occupied areas of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. These have little prospect of success , because the Israelis are unlikely to agree to enough autonomy to satisfy the Palestinians and because, meanwhile, Israeli settlement of the West Bank continues apace. Further, it is unlikely that any Palestinians will subject themselves to charges of selling out by accepting positions of leadership in ''autonomous'' areas, whatever those may turn out to be.

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The key is the PLO of Yasser Arafat. Former Presidents Ford and Carter have now recognized this. It is too bad they did not when they were in a position to do something about it. The light has yet to dawn on President Reagan.

Much of the argument has more to do with form than with substance. The Israelis (and Americans) refuse to talk to the PLO until it recognizes Israel's right to exist. The PLO refuses to do this until the Palestinians' own right to self-determination is recognized. The real issue is over a sovereign Palestinian state, something which is fundamental to the PLO and anathema to Israel.

But the parties are never going to get to the real issue until they start talking to each other. Andrew Young, Carter's ambassador to the United Nations, had to resign because he was rational, and impolitic, enough to try to start talking.

Meanwhile, American policy is being undercut in two ways. One is through the spreading international acceptance of the PLO, as most vividly dramatized by Soviet diplomatic recognition, but also by Arafat's earlier friendly reception in Japan. This means growing isolation of the United States and Israel. The other, perhaps even more ominous, is the increasing religious radicalization of the Middle East. Not only is Islamic fundamentalism on the rise in the Muslim states, but super Jewish Orthodoxy is on the rise in Israel. This can only inhibit cooler, clearer thinking.

One hopeful note is the still somewhat cautious rise of European interest and initiatives, to be carried another step forward this month by British Foreign Minister Lord Carrington's visit to Saudi Arabia. Here is another example of the Reagan administration's topsy-turvy foreign policy priorities. A principal objective of this policy is to protect the oil supplies of the Persian Gulf. But these supplies are relatively more important to Western Europe and Japan than to the US. Why not, then, listen more to, and rely more on, the Europeans and Japanese as to how best to protect them?

Getting things backwards in the Middle East is the most glaring, but by no means the only, example of how the Reagan fixation on the Soviet Union drives it to get things upside down.

In Africa, the administration will not deal with Angola until the Cubans leave. The Cubans will not leave until Namibia is independent, thereby providing a buffer between Angola and South Africa. (They may not leave even then, but certainly they will not leave before.) Meanwhile, the administration cozies up to South Africa.

In Central America, administration preoccupation with the Cubans and the Soviets drives it to support the brutal military forces that caused the discontent that got the Cubans and Soviets there in the first place.

Even in Western Europe, the administration's saber-rattling is feeding the anti-nuclear protests (and maybe even pacifism) that are making it more difficult for friendly governments to strengthen the NATO alliance.

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