Gains and losses for US policy in troubled Mideast arc
Among the latest pluses and minuses for the United States in the intricate power plays under way in the troubled arc from the Middle East through the Gulf to the Indian Ocean are:
* Resumption of contacts between Egypt and Israel to try to get the Camp David talks on Palestinian autonomy going again -- albeit against a background of cat-and- mouse hardball between Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and the Carter administration.
* Signs of renewed activity on the question of the release of the 52 American hostages in Iran -- although this, too, must be set against a complicating background, in this case a sharpening of the power struggle between President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr and Prime Minister Muhammad Ali Rajai.
Minuses (or threatened minuses)
* Formal announcement Sept. 10 of the union of Libya and Syria into "a single state with complete sovereignty over the two countries," which, for all the justified skepticism about its effective implementation, could give a new Middle East opening to the Soviet Union, since it is the main arms supplier to both countries.
* Launching by revolutionary Ethiopia (which enjoys Soviet patronage) of a worldwide diplomatic offensive against "the concentration of forces of American imperialism in Somalia and the Indian Ocean." The US recently has negotiated the use of defense facilities in Somalia, Oman, Kenya, and Egypt -- in the latter case, at Egypt's military base at Ras Banas on the Red Sea coast.
The Israelis seem to resent the US choice of the latter over what Israel itself had to offer: facilities across the Red Sea at either Etzion or Sharm el-Sheikh, both in that part of Sinai still under Israeli control. The pro-Israel Jewish Advocate, published in Boston, said of the US decision: "There is no vote of confidence [in Israel]."
Other recent US moves seen by the Israelis as either surrender to "Arab oil blackmail" or counterploys against Mr. Begin's hard line on Jerusalem and the future of the West Bank include:
1. Abstention (instead of a veto) by the US in last month's United Nations Security Council vote against Israel's legislative action to make a unified Jerusalem the country's eternal capital.
2. Suspension until after the US presidential election of the meetings of the joint US-Israel strategic commissions, which bring together top defense and security officials from both countries.
On the Israel side, there have been moves intended to show that Israel can be tough, too, such as:
1. Resumption last month (with Mr. Begin himself running the Defense Ministry instead of the outgoing Ezer Weizmann) of Israeli strikes against Palestinian targets well inside Lebanon.
2. Expansion and increase in the number of new settlements on the occupied West Bank.
3. The parliamentary vote on Jerusalem.
4. Announcement of Mr. Begin's intention to move his office to the mainly Arab eastern sector of Jerusalem, seized by Israel in the 1967 war.
5. Hints that the Israeli government might move legally to annex the Golan Heights, seized from Syria in the 1967 war.
All these Israeli initiatives played a part in Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's decision to suspend negotiations with Israel on further implementation of the Camp David accords. But Israeli Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir was in Alexandria Sept. 10 having talks with Mr. Sadat about how to resume the talks. In Jerusalem, Mr. Begin was forecasting that the negotiations would be under way again before the end of September.
This followed reported assurances relayed to Mr. Sadat by US special Middle East envoy Sol Linowitz last week that Israel would go slow on the Jewish settlements, on moving the prime ministerial office to east Jerusalem, and on legislation on the Golan Heights.
In Iran, the Majlis (parliament) overwhelmingly confirmed appointment of 14 ministers nominated by Mr. Rajai to his 21- man Cabinet. The remaining seven were not voted on because President Bani-Sadr objected to them, as is his constitutional right.
There is speculation that parliament now may feel able to move to consideration of the hostage issue without waiting for final action on filling the Cabinet seats in contention between the President and the Prime Minister.
Mr. Rajai, speaking in Qom Sept. 9, said "We do not compromise or make deals" in a reference to a letter of Aug. 20 from US Secretary of State Edmund S. Muskie suggesting establishment of communication "directly, very discreetly" on the hostage issue.
In his letter, Mr. Muskie also said: "The US recognizes the reality of the Iranian Revolution and the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic." He referred to the suffering of the US hostages, adding: "I recognize that Iranians have suffered, too."
In his Qom speech, Mr. Rajai quoted from the Muskie letter and said in apparent response: "If you repent, since God forgives sinners in that case, our people would also forgive you, sinning criminals, since they believe in the same God."