With a traditional Arab embrace, Yasser Arafat has formally reconciled with Egypt -- potentially the most important Mideast political move since Egypt's Anwar Sadat made peace with Israel.
But the key word is "potentially."
Still unclear after Mr. Arafat's meeting Thursday with the late Mr. Sadat's successor, President Hosni Mubarak, were the long-range intentions of the Palestine Liberation Organization chief, his PLO colleagues, other Arab leaders, Israel, and the United States.
The Americans' position is likely to be the single most important factor in determining what comes next.
The Egyptians would like to think the reconciliation foreshadows a resolution of the central issue of war and peace in the Mideast: the Palestinian question.
Specifically, Mr. Mubarak wants Arafat and Jordan's King Hussein jointly to help activate a Reagan administration peace plan issued in September of last year. It called for a Palestinian-Jordanian federation on land captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war, a compromise stopping short of the PLO's long-time demand for a full-fledged Palestinian state there.
The immediate significance of the Arafat-Mubarak talks is more limited, though still considerable. Chiefly, the talks are in line with a gradual shift in political alliances within the Arab world that began only months after Sadat's peace with Israel.
Syria -- which backed the recent PLO mutiny by hard-line opponents of Arafat -- is now virtually alone among Israel's front-line Arab foes in a camp vocally critical of US policy and determined to block any Reagan-mediated negotiations with the Israelis.
In the other corner stands Egypt -- slowly emerging from its regional isolation since the peace with Israel -- and relatively moderate Arab powers like Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq. Iraq, despite its formal friendship pact with the Soviet Union, has in the past five years or so drifted closer to the Saudis, mellowed its enmity with Washington, and virtually reconciled with Egypt.
The new Arab power lineup owes much to a traditional rivalry between neighboring Syria and Iraq. But even more important in the past year or so, a prominent Arab commentator notes privately in Beirut, "is a shared fear among many Arab states of Syria's relations with Iran, and of Shiite extremism in general."
The key unanswered questions about the Arafat-Mubarak meeting concern the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The meeting is much less surprising for having occurred than for its timing -- only days after Arafat's maritime escape from Tripoli in northern Lebanon.
Arafat had left little doubt that, sooner or later, he would reconcile with Egypt. "The isolation of Egypt must end," he said in a recent newspaper interview. ". . . we must take into consideration the important and positive positions taken recently by President Hosni Mubarak, such as suspending normalization of relations [with Israel] and his refusal to send back the Egyptian ambassador" to Tel Aviv. Mubarak had been critical of Syria and supportive of Arafat during the PLO civil war.
But it is significant that Arafat showed up in Cairo before touching base in any other Arab capitals, and before meeting with other ranking PLO leaders. Two PLO figures matter in particular: George Habash and Nayef Hawatmeh. They lead the two most important hard-line guerrilla factions in the PLO. Both pointedly refused to go along with Syria in the rebellion. But both also made clear they expected Arafat in return to reject US or Jordanian plans to activate the Reagan peace plan.
Arafat will almost surely caucus with Palestinian colleagues in the near future. He also seems likely to make good on hints he will visit Jordan's King Hussein. The King broke off talks with Arafat last spring after the PLO leader's 11th-hour reservations about giving Jordan a mandate to enter negotiations on the Reagan plan.
Yet various obstacles -- or unknowns -- remain in any resumed bid to strike such a deal:
* Israel wants no part of the Reagan plan, determined that any fresh talks must be based on the Camp David accords. These envisaged only a limited Palestinian "autonomy" on the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, deferring any consideration of a Jordanian-Palestinian confederation until later and leaving wide open Israel's option of claiming sovereignty over these territories.
Israel has meanwhile made clear it intends to expand Jewish settlement there. And regardless of what ultimately comes out of the Arafat-Mubarak talks, Israel is incensed at the very fact they took place. It sees this as a violation of the spirit and letter of its peace with Sadat.
* Jordan is ready, willing, even eager to resume the dialogue with Arafat. But King Hussein is so far sticking to his insistence that the US must, at a minimum, press Israel for a freeze on Jewish settlements before any sort of negotiations with the Israelis begin.
* Egypt is a different place under Mubarak than under Sadat. The regime is concerned to act within a consensus of moderate Arabs, and has been increasingly reluctant since Sadat's assassination to take the out-front role in Arab-Israeli diplomacy. Cairo would like Hussein and Arafat to fill that bill. And like the Jordanian monarch, Mubarak sees US pressure on Israel as the key prerequisite to any serious new negotiations.
* Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states have been even more reluctant to take a public lead on the Arab-Israeli front. This reluctance has almost surely been reinforced by the recent US announcement of expanded "military and political" cooperation with Israel, and by the recent reminder in Kuwait, in the form of several bomb explosions, that anti-US Islamic extremists are on the prowl.
* The US still professes interest in activating the Reagan plan. Washington is understood to have assured King Hussein that its promise to try to get Israel to freeze West Bank settlements is still valid. But Reagan has other Mideast problems on his mind -- notably Lebanon -- and is counting on Israeli cooperation in seeking their solution. He may, in any case, be leery of exerting too much pressure on Israel during a US election year.
Arafat himself senses all these potential problems as keenly as anyone. His meeting with Mubarak made sense -- Arab-Israeli issues aside -- as a move quickly to recoup political standing within the Arab world after his evacuation from Tripoli.