Arab politics have changed profoundly over the past few years. The signs are everywhere. The problem is that we have not been sufficiently alert to see that behind old attitudes are new meanings. However unpleasant it might be, perhaps the time has come to look squarely at a new Middle East.
In a political sense, the old system in the Middle East has rested on the tenets of Arab nationalism. They suggest a single people from the Gulf to the Atlantic having a common language, culture, religion, and history. The national aspiration has been that ultimately these people can come together to express themselves as a single political entity in a way and with the power that will require the rest of the world to respect them. Supposedly power can be achieved simply from unity - and without any need for social change.
Because of the traditional and emotional appeal of Arab nationalism, no leader could ignore it. Arabism has limited the ability to use Saudi, Jordanian, or Egyptian national feelings as an implement of policy for Saudi, Jordanian, or Egyptian purpose. The best a leader of a state could hope for was to manipulate Arab nationalism to his advantage, piously pledging to serve its aims while possibly hating the restrictions it imposed upon him.
Arab leaders added one complexity to their plight - the adoption of the Palestinian cause as their symbolic resolve. Palestinians represent the ultimate in Arab national sacrifice - a homeland lost and people ejected from their patrimony. Even today this belief is nurtured insofar as Palestinians have continued to be sacrificed as in the massacres at Shatila and Sabra.
With the advent of the PLO, a small group of purposeful men became the embodiment of the Palestinians. They established themselves as a sort of national conscience to assure that no Arab leader spoke out in favor of any other conceptualization of Arab politics.
Finally, an event occurred that broke the continuity of this system. It was Lebanon. Arab performance in response to the Israeli invasion was so far from Arab aspiration that even the mere reciting of the aspiration by an Arab leader might arouse such ire over his hypocrisy and treachery that most leaders now have little choice but to back away from the concept of the Arab Nation and to spend more time talking about the state and the benefits it can bring to the Saudi, Jordanian, or Egyptian people. To be sure, the dance of Arab leaders will be intricate in order to create the illusion of steadfastness. But back away they will.
The shock of Lebanon has had one other effect. Arab eyes have been opened. Henceforth it will be more difficult for Arabs to deceive themselves. Accepting Israel may be too bitter a potion for some, but there can be few doubts about the West Bank and Gaza. The Israelis are in the final stages of acquiring both. The only admonitions against Israel so far have been statements such as Henry Kissinger's to the effect that Israel's incorporating these territories and expelling Arab residents will cost Israel the moral support of even its best friends.
Actually, Israel has already lost its moral authority - at the seige of Beirut. But will this loss be catastrophic for the Jewish state? Hardly. In reality, it only requires that Israel follow the rest of us and set aside moral pretensions in its dealings with others. It has not been a moral sense that assured Israel support from world Jewry and the United States anyway. The Israelis want the occupied territories and they have the power to take them.
Curiously enough, if morality and justice are to be found in the present situation, they are in Mr. Reagan's peace proposals. But these are rapidly becoming inconsequential. They are concerned with the old Middle East of Arab Nation and altruistic Jewish vision.
Quietly, everyone appears to be making an accommodation with the new situation. Despite Mr. Reagan's proposals, the US was never about to confront Israel over the Arab-Israeli dispute unless it was compelled to do so. Now, with the weakening of the oil market, a military and economic relationship that compromises Egypt, and with a Rapid Deployment Force moving toward half a million men, the US will attempt to protect its interests in defiance of the Arab Nation - and without an Arab-Israeli settlement acceptable to the Palestinians.
Tacitly the US position has plenty of support in the Gulf where governments through the Gulf Cooperation Council have found a new way of expressing their mutual interests without any reference to Arabism, something that at best has always been a clumsy device for cooperation among countries.
This leaves odds and ends. Libya's Qaddafi, who has remained true to the old concepts, seems strangely passe. Despite his sometimes clownish antics abroad, at home he has worked with relative success toward the moral wefare of his society.
King Hussein must be careful. Within the new context of states as opposed to the Arab Nation, there is some logic in the Israeli idea of a Palestinian state in Jordan. With this slight adjustment, the Middle East state system would then be in place and there need not be any further talk about the aspirations of the Arab Nation.
And Assad of Syria? Even as he has continued to play the game of Arabism, spirit has been noticeably lacking. If a relatively stable and Christian state does emerge in Lebanon that is firmly under American tutelage and eventually by proxy under Israel, the Syrians may discover a new affinity for the state - Syrians first and Arabs thereafter. Greater Syria is not a new idea.
For Arabs and those from Europe and the US who appreciate the old Middle East , this is indeed an unpleasant prescription - for some even heresy. But has not enough energy and treasure been squandered on the images of the old? If social satisfaction is to be achieved, is it not time to see the present for what it is and the future for what it is likely to be?
And for the Israelis there will be only more disillusionment. It is clear that God will not be giving Mr. Begin Judea and Samaria. The US will. Without their innocence Israelis now face the proposition that they are only another barely viable Middle East state as dependent on outside economic support as Jordan and the Palestinians. No one will care that they are Jewish any more than we think about Turks being Muslim or Indians Hindu.
After all, it is Israel that is the principal proponent of a state system in the Middle East. Inherently, this system must be secular. In their own creation the Israelis will probably encounter the limitations of their power.