After Sinai evacuation--what?

By , Gideon Rafael, former Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations is author of the recently published ''Destination Peace - Three Decades of Israeli Foreign Policy.''

With the approach of Evacuation Day the temperature in the Middle East is rising rapidly. A peculiar strain of spring fever is spreading. It alarms the capitals of the world, no less than the two signatories of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty.

It results from a variety of factors: from Israel's despairing view of a world void of moral restraints and aligned in inexorable enmity against the Jewish people; from apprehensions that after Israel's withdrawal from Sinai the peace process will wither away, that Egypt will turn its back on Israel, refashion its Arab alliances, and support with increased vigor the cause of Palestinian self-determination. The tension is caused by the recalcitrance and militancy of the Arab rejectionist front and the abiding destructive fury of the PLO in all its emanations. It is heightened by the specter of growing Soviet interventionism, condemned but not checked by the West; by mounting Soviet incitement against Israel and by a well-founded concern that the Soviet Union lies in ambush for a diversionary opportunity in the Middle East. Israel's lightning preemptive strikes, highlighted by unrestrained verbal effusions, have done their part to intensify the state of agitation.

But the United States, too, with all its useful involvement in the peace process and its far-reaching commitments to the parties, cannot be completely absolved from responsibility for the present state of incertitude. The Reagan administration has not yet succeeded in convincing the governments concerned that it possesses a workable, coherent, and balanced Middle East policy. Admittedly, it has made known its intention to secure an increased American military presence in the area. It has propagated the idea of a ''strategic consensus,'' rallying all regional forces prepared to resist Soviet designs in the area, meanwhile deferring American preoccupations with the Arab-Israel contentions. A difficult proposition indeed, as events are proving with mounting urgency.

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In the absence of a coordinated policy related to the specifics of the controversial issues troubling the region, Washington proceeded in leaps and bounds. It sold AWACS and F-15 fighter planes to Saudi Arabia. As compensation it reluctantly signed an understanding on strategic cooperation with Israel, a memorandum which was as shortlived as it was insubstantial. It undertook to reequip the Egyptian Army and initiated joint military exercises with it. But it failed to obtain in return Egypt's consent to operate even for a limited period the Sinai air bases, the most advanced installations in the Middle East, to be abandoned by Israel in April.

The availability of these bases to the US would not only have increased its defense capabilities in the Middle East and bolstered the security of the areas as a whole, but, no less important, it would have strengthened the faith of Israel in the solidity and durability of the peace. It might have provided it with a greater sense of security, inducing it in due time to mitigate its position on the future of the West Bank.

In the past year Washington assigned the Palestinian autonomy talks a rather lowly place on its agenda. It seems that the late President Sadat succeeded in convincing President Reagan of their futility under the existing circumstances. They agreed to proceed in low gear for the time being and to give them a powerful push after the completion of the Sinai evacuation.

The series of Israeli surprise actions and the approaching evacuation date aroused Washington from its lethargy and prompted it to pay urgent attention to the troubled scene. It recognized that the continuing deadlock might not only jeopardize the final evacuation of Sinai, but also the prospects of a settlement for the West Bank, as envisaged in the Camp David accord. The lenient attitude of the Israeli government toward the activities of the ''Stop the Withdrawal'' militants turned on the warning light in Washington. It flashed: ''When in trouble - travel.''

The administration has at its disposal an experienced corps of visiting firemen, ranging from Ambassador Philip Habib to the secretary of state himself. Mr. Haig rushed to the scene equipped with an emergency kit full of high-power persuasion, unshakable commitments to Israel's security, and veiled warnings, generally of little effect because of their swift transience. The secretary of state sought to keep the moribund autonomy talks alive until after April, when the US supposedly will engage in forceful effort to bring them to a conclusion on the basis of the American interpretation of the Camp David undertakings.

Since the fundamental objectives of the governments of Israel and Egypt in regard to the future of the administered territories are diametrically opposed, it appears inconceivable that even the most skillful American mediation will be able to bridge the gap. But even if an arrangement could be pieced together, the other parties - the Palestinians and Jordan, whose cooperation would be required for its functioning - presumably will not participate in its implementation.

Nothing has contributed more to the plight of the Palestinians than the obdurate refusal of their leaders to reconcile the legitimate aspirations of the two peoples inhabiting the country. In 1975 the late President Sadat exposed them in an interview published in a Kuwait newspaper: ''All what the Palestinians knew, was to say: no, no, no, until half of Palestine was lost.''

Nothing has caused a greater tragedy for the Palestinian people than King Hussein's precipitate participation in the war against Israel in 1967. There is no other way to amend the tragic errors of the past and to avoid more suffering in the future than for Jordan and the Palestinians to join in the negotiations as envisaged in the Camp David agreement. The existing differences can only be reconciled in talks between the parties directly concerned.

It is the duty of responsible governments to cool the febrile minds. They must correctly assess the realities of the situation and enlighten their people about the limitations of the power of their countries and the patience of their friends. The government of Israel must unequivocally in word and deed demonstrate its firm resolve to complete the Sinai withdrawal in accordance with its solemn treaty obligations.

The government of Egypt, in order to dispel any lingering doubts, should publicly reaffirm its unconditional and unlinked adherence, on the basis of reciprocity, to all its obligations under the peace treaty.

And the US should clarify now, in consultation with Israel, its positions on the outstanding issues and the substance of our bilateral relations.

The ''no more war'' pronounced in Jerusalem by the President of Egypt and the Prime Minister of Israel four years ago inaugurated the peace process which is now approaching its consummation. Only foolhardy hotheads and irredeemable fanatics would try to frustrate it. The sound majority of the people of Israel and Egypt will cherish the peace as a blessing for generations to come.

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