IT would help right now if Washington carefully distinguished its long-range objectives for the Middle East from United States electoral politics. This won't be easy for the next few weeks as the New York and Pennsylvania presidential primaries draw near. The tendency to oversimplify Arab-Israeli conflict into domestic American political terms is insistent enough even without US elections at hand or contests in states with large numbers of Jewish voters.
President Reagan's cancellation of the sale of shoulder-held Stinger missiles to Jordan and Saudi Arabia this week after telling a pro-Israel gathering the week before that the sale had to go through, the calculating or mischievous bid in Congress to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem are examples of the unruly bounce in Washington's reaction to Middle East sensitivities.
If the antiaircraft Stinger sale was a good idea in the first place to meet the security needs of Jordan and Saudi Arabia and to help secure a moderate base for Arab-Israeli diplomacy, its correctness as policy could hardly have deteriorated that abruptly. Even King Hussein's discouraging remarks about Washington dancing too closely to Israel's tune could not, by themselves, justify the administration's doing precisely what it was accused of - appearing to yield to pro-Israeli pressure.
The administration's reported attempt to inject the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem embassy shift into the bargain is likewise disappointing. The President had earlier reaffirmed the longstanding US position on its embassy's location in Israel - that a move to Jerusalem, one sector of which is the site of Israel's government, hinged on a general agreement on the Israeli-occupied territories. It's hardly consistent to link the US Embassy site issue to the Stinger sale. Stripping the Stingers from the administration's $220 million Jordanian rapid deployment force in exchange for tacit pro-Israeli lobby consent to the strike force hardly reinforces the image of a Washington making up its own mind.
Two things are troubling here. First, the Reagan administration has had a rocky time, putting it mildly, with its Middle East policies. It never could resolve the dispute between its military and diplomatic chieftains over troops in Lebanon. At the moment, it is offering no new initiatives for the region, which is only prudent. The White House gives the impression, insiders concede, of no clear hand in day-to-day Middle East decisions, after the shuffle sending National Security Adviser William Clark to the Interior Department. The remaining staff appears overworked, its liaison with Congress faulty.
Second, it is a mistake to think of Middle East progress primarily as a creature of US domestic decisions. Israel itself could be about to undergo an election, as dissatisfaction with its economy, the costs of the Lebanon occupation, and other factors press on the Shamir government. Jordan's Hussein has to protect himself from Syrian rivalry. The Palestinian Liberation Organization's leadership status must evolve. Lebanon's factional disputes drag on, testing the boundaries of Syrian patience.
In other words, Washington can only distract itself from the conditions in the Middle East that could lead to peace openings and undercut its credibility as a peace-maker by allowing the Stinger and embassy site issues to become the focus of its actions.