Manueuvering is under way to load the board for the first moves that Ronald Reagan will have to make in the Arab-Israel chess game. Already on the board is former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, now in Cairo at the start of a Mideast swing.
On other parts of the board are the protagonists in Lebanon inflicting new agonies on that war-torn land, and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin doing his utmost to give himself a more favorable and flexible image in American eyes.
Dr. Kissinger's visit is described as "private." But it has the blessing of both President-elect Reagan and Secretary of State-designate Alexander Haig. And when he returns to Washington, Dr. Kissinger will be reporting to the incoming Reagan administration.
Clearly Dr. Kissinger will be exploring in Egypt, Israel, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia what might be done to move forward the Middle East peace process, stalled at the moment within its Camp David framework.
There is no suggestion at present that either Mr. Reagan or Dr. Kissinger himself sees the former secretary of state as a successor to outgoing Sol Linowitz as the principal United States Middle East negotiator.
In Lebanon, the Israelis, the Palestinians, and the Syrians seem to be maneuvering either to establish separately their own strength or to destroy the strength of their rivals as forces to be dealt with. That is the meaning of the latest fighting both in southern Lebanon and in the northeast at Zahle in the Bekaa Valley.
As for Mr. Begin's decision against immediate annexation of the occupied Golan Heights and his apology to the Syrians for the unintentional killing of three Syrian soldiers in southern Lebanon, these are partly explicable as moves aimed at ensuring he has as favorable an image as possible with Mr. Reagan as the latter assumes the presidency. (Egyptian President Anwar Sadat also is trying to establish credit with the incoming president before Mr. Reagan starts to move pieces on the Mideast chess board).
The proposal to annex the Golan Heights has been withdrawn from consideration for now in the Israeli Knesset (parliament) . But the latest public opinion poll suggests that 60 percent of Istaelis favor bringing the Golan palteau under Israeli sovereignty. Annexation of the territory -- captured from Syria in the 1967 war -- therefore cannot be ruled out for all time.
Similarly, although Mr. Begin took the unusual step of apologizing for the killing of the Syrian soldiers, his overall line on southern Lebanon is as tough as ever. He continues to support the Christian militias of the renegade Lebanese army officer, Maj. Saad Haddad. Israel was instrumental in introducing these militias as a buffer between the Israeli border and the area inland from the Lebanese port of Tyre in which Palestinian guerrillas are established.
Israel supports Major Haddad in keeping both the United Nations peacekeeping force and the regular Lebanese Army (such as it is) out of the immediate border area.
At the same time, Israel recently has fenced off within Lebanon an area around the headwaters of the Wazzani River, a tributary of the Hasbani, which in turn is a tributary of the Jordan River. This only increases Arab suspicions that Israel is edging forward to bring under its direct control both the Wazzani and the Hasbani so that none of the headwaters of the Jordan are left in Arab hands.
Simultaneously, Palestinians in southern Lebanon came under attack in the pre-Christmas period from Christian militias, Shia Muslim militias, and the Israeli Defense Force. This has made Palestinians increasingly aware of both their vulnerability and their relative isolation in the wake of the new divisions opened in the Arab world by the Gulf war between Iraq and Iran.
The isolation of their Syrian patron, President Hafez al-Assad, from other Arab governments only add to Palestinian dismay at their relative impotence at the moment. But this brings satisfaction, of course, to the Israelis.
Hence the greater need for Syrian President Assad (from his and the Palestinian point of view) to show that he still has fight in him. He got an opportunity to do this when seven Syrian soldiers were killed on Dec. 19 in a crossfire between two rival Christian groups in the Lebanese Christian town of Zahle in the Bekaa Valley, on the main Bei-rut-
Mr. Assad immediately ordered his Army to bombard and lay siege to Zahle. The Syrian assault brought the two Christian groups quickly together to defend themselves, but the Syrian siege continued through the Christian holidays.
The Economist of London reports that the intra-Christian fighting in Zahle may be the latest step by Pierre Gemayel's (Christian) Phalangists to win control of the entire Lebanese Christian community. Mr. Gemayel's next move, it is speculated, would to establish a breakaway separate Christian state and launch an all-out offensive on the Palestinians withi it. This, too, would be to the satisfaction of Israel.
The Economist reports that for the past two or three months, the Palestine Liberation Organization has been bringing students back from abroad to be ready to fight if the Palestinians are forced in Lebanon into such a last-ditch battle.