Middle East muddle

The new Reagan administration could be allowed a period of grace before it developed a coherent policy on the Middle East. But after more than a year it is clear that US policy is in a state of drift. The United States and Israel seem to be on a collision course, despite President Reagan's pro-Israeli sentiments. The moderate Arab leaders are dubious about Washington's diplomacy. And, if that were not enough, the policymaking bureaucracy is torn by internal dissension.

Surely it is time for President Reagan to play an active role in Middle East affairs, to put a stop to public feuding between his aides, and to begin to give substance and direction to American policy in the region. The reason is plain: the Mideast remains a volatile area of the world where failure to pursue a peace settlement only adds to the danger of instability and war.

To his credit, the President has accepted the common sense of pursuing a balanced diplomacy that takes account of US interests in Arab as well as Israeli policies. But this diplomacy should be conducted quietly, in dignified fashion, and without needlessly alarming Israel, which rightly perceives that American public opinion has been swinging away from an overwhelming pro-Israeli position. Public remarks made during Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger's foray into the Middle East -- including the comment that the US is trying to ''redirect'' military policy away from Israel toward the Arabs -- were indiscreet to say the least. They served only to heighten Israeli anxieties. President Reagan and Secretary of State Haig have had to come galloping to the rescue with comforting reassurances to Israel, but it is not easy to erase the damage done.

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Of greater concern, however, is the general muddle of present policy. The centerpiece of Reagan diplomacy has been the quest for a so-called ''strategic consensus'' in the Middle East, a kind of anti-Soviet collective security system dictated by the rising importance of oil as well as the growing potential for Soviet expansion. Yet, as Mr. Weinberger found in his talks with the Saudis, the Arabs are less troubled about the Russians and Soviet aggression than about Israel and Israeli aggression. They want a change in US policy toward Israel, a US willingness to press the Begin government to negotiate a just settlement of the Palestinian question. It is doubtful that even the hastily contrived effort to shift the US policy of strategic consensus away from an emphasis on the Soviet factor to one of thwarting ''internal subversion'' will alter the Arab position. To the Arabs, the conflict with Israel is uppermost.

Unfortunately, there is yet no clear signal from Washington on this paramount issue. Lip service is given to the autonomy negotiations taking place under the umbrella of the Camp David accords. But the appointment of a US negotiator with a lack of diplomatic experience, no knowledge of the Middle East, and no political influence with the President shows that Washington is merely treading water at the moment.

Granted, little progress can be expected before Israel evacuates the last remaining portion of occupied Sinai. Many concerned people ask, however: How committed is Mr. Reagan to self-determination for the Palestinians? Does he recognize the problem as one of the most crucial to peace in the Middle East?

Unfortunately, President Reagan now faces a midterm election that could impose constraints on him. His aides may well argue that this is no time to invite domestic political tremors by grasping the Arab-Israeli nettle. On the other hand, no time is ''convenient'' to do that, and Mr. Reagan may end up risking even more, domestically and internationally, by tolerating the current disarray.

The President might recall that the Carter administration, for all the criticism it received for inconsistencies and confusion in its diplomacy, nonetheless did have an innovative policy for the Mideast that brought about an historic step toward peace -- an achievement applauded by the American people. He might also contemplate that, in this time of budget stringencies, the public may become less and less enamored of massive transfers of aid to Israel -- now unquestionably the dominant military power in the Middle East -- and to other nations in the region. By taking a firm hand in the Mideast, in other words, Mr. Reagan may risk less politically than some believe.

The point is, a problem is simmering in the Middle East that grows increasingly dangerous. Will the President have the imagination, the vision, and the political courage to address it?

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