Each in his own way, Egyptian President Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin their Aswan meeting this week have been concerned with the possibility of a new Cairo-Washington-Tel Aviv shield against Soviet expansion out of Afghanistan into the Mideast's oilfields.
Afhanistan, at the moment, may overshadow even the new Egypt-Israel peace steps, including opening of full diplomatic relations and Israel evacuation of two-thirds of Sinai Jan. 26. What chiefly concerns the two leaders now is their role in US defense plans for the Middle East.
Both Mr. Begin and Mr. Sadat have been circumspect. The US might use Egyptian military "facilities" but not send US troops to Egypt, Mr. Sadat has said. In extending a similar invitation to the US, Mr. Begin, like Mr. Sadat, failed to mention a formal US-Israel alliance, which the Muslim world would condemn.
It took Ezer Weizman, the bluff, hearty, and straight-talking ex-combat pilot who is now Israel's Defense Minister, to put the alliance matter on the table. Mr. Weizman, due back here Jan. 24 to discuss details of Israel's requests for increased Us military aid this year, is the chief future contender for Mr. Begin's job, once Mr. Begin quits it, whether through parliamentary decision or incapacity.
The Carter-Sadat-Begin peace agreements of March, 1979, Mr. Weizman told a CBS "Face the Nation" television panel Dec. 30, "is probably one of the first links in a chain that could be an American chain . . . I hope Jordan, I hope Morocco, I hope the Sudan, I hope Saudi Arabia" would join and "that this will be more than a beginning; this will be a continuation of a buffer, of a stronghold against what is happening in Afghanistan and Tehran."
President Sadat, as Mr. Weizman elaborated in remarks to this writer after the panel interview, had actually started the idea in 1972 when he expelled Soviet advisers from Egypt. Israel, he said, was pleased that it no longer faced a huge Soviet military presence in Egypt. After all, Israelis had been shooting down Soviet-made planes and knocking out Soviet-made tanks (about 1,000 planes and 2,500 tanks) in wars with the Arabs since 1948.
Do the resumed cold war with the Soviets over Afghanistan and the growing dangers to Western oil in the Persian Gulf, mean, in fact, that there is a new holy alliance developing in the Middle East, not unlike those attempted by Christian powers from the 16th century when Ottoman Turkey seemed to threaten the West? And could Egypt and Israel be its twin cornerstones?
President Sadat, by sending Egyptian troops or military advisers to shore up anti- communist or anti-radical Arab regimes like thos in Oman, which guards the gateway to Arab and Iranian oil, or in Sudan, which protects Egypt's Nile River lifeline from the Soviets now installed in Ethiopia, seems to signal an affirmative Egyptian answer.
However, the ideas of Mr. Sadat and Mr. Weizman (each of whom describes the other as "my good, good friend," and each seems to mean it) appear to diverge on the crucial issue of the other major Arab regimes, which despite Iranian and Afghan events are still hostile to the Egypt-Israel peace and still believe it will not settle, and may only aggravate, the central Palestinian issue and the future of Israeli-occupied Arab land.
One former colleague of Mr. Weizman in Israeli intelligence predicted to an academic audience recently that the present Saudi royal regime "would be out in a matter of 100 to 300 days." Mr. Weizman, perhaps desiring that the wish should not be seen as the father of the deed, disagrees. But Mr. Sadat, surprisingly, does not.
In a little-noticed but possibly quite crucial conversation with CBS News commentator Walter Cronkite in the shadow of the Great Pyramid, he called on the Saudis and other Arab rulers to openly condemn the Ayatollah Khomeini's "insane" rule in Iran.
In those Arab countries, he said. "there is a wrong system, just like the wrong system was in Iran. A family and oil, like Khomeini described it. . . Well, in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, all the Gulf is family and oil.
"I'm not asking you to support leaders against their people, but I'm asking you to support the people who choose their own way of life. And all my people in the Gulf and everywhere are your friends."
If by "all my people" President Sadat meant the millions of expatriate Egyptians working in the Gulf and other Arab states, he seemed to be calling for Egyptian-backed popular revolutions against royal rulers, much as the late President Nasser once did.
This is not the first time Mr. Sadat has predicted upheavals against those Arab rulers who have shunned his peace initiative, because they felt it held nothing for their countries or for the Palestinians. But, for the first time, he seemed to be clearly saying, "Get rid of your rulers, Arabs, and get new ones who can work with us and the United States!"
This may not be exactly the kind of "holy alliance" which Ezer Weizman had in mind when he suggested an "American chain" of anti-Soviet states. Or perhaps it is only a Sadat variation on the Weizman theme. In any case, as the United States and its friends now contemplate what to do about the current Soviet thrust into the Muslim world from central Asia, they have plenty to ponder in the words of Weizman and Sadat, the one-time enemies who now find themselves friends on the Western side of the fence in a newly polarized world.