The Soviet Union is trying to come in from the cold in Mideast peacemaking. Its standing in the region is battered by friendships gone bad, by the unpopular company it keeps, and by its exclusion from bargaining for four years. But now the Soviet Union appears to be preparing to reassert itself as party to peace proceedings.
Two actions by Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev may foreshadow a Soviet move to reopen superpower talks on the Middle East set aside by the United States in 1977 to pursue Camp David. They are: Brezhnev's maneuvering this week toward a summit with President Reagan, and his restatement at the 26th Soviet Communist Party congress of a 32- year-old policy of recognizing Israel.
Diplomats in the area also see the recent vociferousness of Soviet-sponsored Syria as a Soviet signal that neither the USSR, Syria, nor the Palestine Liberation Organization (all in it together in a trickle-down fashion) should be left out of a new Arab-Israeli peace effort during the Reagan term.
The possible Brezhnev-Reagan summit, of course, will have a dozen weighty topics for discussion. The Mideast probably will be among them but will not necessarily be high on the list.
Superpower dialog on the program has continued throughout most of the past decade -- until October 1977. That was when Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko issued a five- point declaration in new York on the Middle East that was drawn up by himself and former Secretary of State Cyrus Vance. The agreement ensured "the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people," and the establishment of "normal peaceful [Arab-Israeli] relations." It also called for a Geneva conference on the problem that same year.
But shortly after the declaration Israel convinced the Carter administration to issue a "working paper" corollary. The working paper's specificity effectively killed the chance for superpower-sponsored talks. Anwar Sadat's trip to Jerusalem followed, and then came Camp David.
It has been essentially an American show at the peace table ever since.
The Reagan administration with its tough anti-Soviet, pro-israel line will not readily consent to reopen the Geneva talks. But an early US-USSR summit indicates Reagan is interested in feeling out the Soviets on vital issues. If superpower dialog can be established and consultations continue, it is possible that the Soviet Union and its Arab allies will be more open to a possible new peace move during the Reagan years.
For its part, the Soviet Union finds its Middle East involvement less than optimum.In the past decade, it has been ejected from Egypt, the Sudan, North Yemen, and Somalia. Its influence in Iraq, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, and the Persian Gulf nations has greatly diminished or is almost nonexistent.
The Soviets ar heavily involved with regimes in Ethiopia, South Yemen, Libya Syria, and Afghanistan. They are still trying with Iran. But these regimes for the most part have been ostracized by the rest of the Arab world. All but Libya require more military and economic assistance from the USSR than the political benefits of influence seem worth.
Even among so-called Arab friends, the USSR finds that, with the exception of Syria, nearly every one has tried to compensate for ties to Russia by persecuting the indigenous communist party. This has happened in Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Algeria, and the Sudan.
The December 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, moreover, has greatly angered Arabs, Muslims, and members of the nonaligned movement who heretofore saw the USSR as a possible counterpoise to an America staunchly committed to the Camp David process. Egypt's Sadat, Saudi Prince Fahd, and other Arab leaders have continually warned of Soviet designs on the region.
After a meeting with Israel's foreign minister Feb. 24, Secretary of State Alexander Haig posed the greatest problem in the Middle East as "the deteriorating position of the West vis-a-vis the Soviet Union."
In strategic terms this may have occurred, but in political terms Camp David and any sequel to it stresses America's predominant (albeit unpopular) role in the Middle East.
But if the stalled Camp David process is written off by Reagan, and if the US wants to insure the success of any new peace effort, it almost surely will need Soviet participation or acquiescence. Other things being equal, a peace plan agreed to by both superpowers and replacing Camp David would better the standing of the US in the eyes of Ara bs.