US efforts to patch together an informal anti-Soviet alliance in the Middle East have caught on a familiar snag: the Arab-Israeli conflict. Israel and many Arab states share a deep concern over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and unrest next-door in Iran. But both Arab and Israeli government also are distrustful of each other, and of any American move to put them on the same team.
A broad anti-Soviet entente in the Middle East seems to many Western officials one effective, long-range response to the Afghanistan crisis and to the positioning of Moscow's military near the West's vital Arab oil lifeline.
Impulsively, Arab petroleum giants such as Saudi Arabia probably would tend tom agree. The Saudis harbor Islam's natural distrust of godless communism. They also have the conservative's natural distrust of revolution, even revolution Muslim-style, as in Iran. They would like to look to Washington, a traditional military patron, for succor.
So would other moderate Arab states, such as Jordan, whose King Hussein still refers to Washington as a "friend" despite sharp differences over the Egyptian-Israeli peace process. Even harder-line Arab states -- notably Syria and Iraq -- historically have mistrusted Moscow and their own communists, in spite of a growing military dependence on the Soviet Union.
"But the problem," a top Jordanian official told the Monitor several months ago, "remains that Washington and we Arabs disagree on who the principal enemy is. . . . The Americans think it is Moscow. We still insist it is an aggressive and expansionist Israel that refuses a just resolution of the Palestinian question."
So powerful is this conviction that even Egypt, which has signed a US-mediated peace with the Israelis, seems reluctant to overdo cooperation with the Jewish state. "Israel will have no place in the Arab and Islamic worlds in as far as cooperation is concerned," Egyptian Prime Minister Mustapha Khalil said Jan. 17, "unless a just and overall peace is realized and the Palestinians are allowed to regain their legitimate rights."
"Israel is offering nothing near the full autonomy guaranteed to the Palestinians in the [September, 1978] Camp David accords," another Egyptian official told a Western reporter recently. "The Israeli are still building settlements on the occupied West Bank. . . . That is not the road to overall peace."
Knowing that other Arabs (including Palestinian guerrillas) feel the same way , Egypt has visibly beefed up security forces in its sprawling, dust-tan capital of Cairo ahead of the scheduled opening of an Israeli embassy in late January.
Some Western diplomats link the increased security with reports a major demonstrational Jan. 18 by Egyptian Muslim adherents opposed to the Egyptian-Israeli treaty. Reports from Cairo also said some 70 members of a militant Islamic group had been arrested in the northern city of Alexandria.
"Almost the entire Arab world, I think, shares our abhorrence of what the Soviets have done in Afghanistan," says an American diplomat privately. "But it is clear that, in the Arabs' view, the best step toward uniting the region against this kind of Soviet aggression would be to solve the Palestinian problem."
Washington, in recent days, has taken pains to convey this feeling to Israel. First, US diplomats leaked statements along this line to the Israeli press. Then Sol Linowitz, President Carter's new chief negotiator for Palestinian autonomy, said it now was imperative to make progress in those talks -- and to clear the region of "one of the main causes of instability," namely, the Arab-Israeli conflict of views.
Yet in spite of the separate peace between Israel and Egypt, a resolution of the Palestinian problem seems as elusive as ever.
Egypt argues that the US-sponsored Camp David peace "framework" guaranteed full executive powers to Palestinian councils on the occupied West Bank of the Jordan River and the Gaza Strip. Israel hotly disagrees, fearing eventual establishment of a Palestinian state there dominated by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
When Egypt formally aired its reading of autonomy in the latest round of talks with Israel, the chief Israeli negotiator promptly charged that Cairo had set the negotiations back "at least six months."
Israel's latest negotianting position, according to Israeli published reports , envisages self-rule for the West Bank in areas such as agriculture, health, economy, and education, and also foresees a locally controlled police force.
But, the reports says, Israel would retain control of key policy areas such as defense and overall security, Jewish settlement, and allotment of "state lands and natural resources."
US officials tend to lean toward the Egyptians' interpretation of Camp David. But the pact was worded so elastically that everyone, from supporters of a Palestinian state to proponents of Israel's much narrowers view of autonomy, can find textual backing for his stand.
Washington, scrambling for a coherent post-Afghanistan strategy in the Middle East, is in a tight corner.
The Arabs, particularly Saudi Arabia, have the oil.
The Israelis have the (US-supplied) guns, tanks, and warplanes.
And as Israeli officials are quick to point out, Israel has a much larger dose of democracy than the Arabs. The Arab world is more open to fallout from Iran's Islamic revolution, and to pressure from Palestinian groups.
Israel, while stressing the PLO's public indications of support for Soviet action in Afghanistan, is gearing up to resist any US pressure for concessions on the Palestinian issue.