US Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig JR. put up the lightning rod in the Middle East this week, and while the clouds gathered, few bolts actually flashed.
To be relief of moderate Arab leaders, the Reagan administration's much-heralded Mideast priority list -- Soviets first, Arab-Israeli dispute second -- turned out to be more balanced than expected.
The secretary of state showed his concern for continuing the peace process and for keeping crises, such as Lebanon, from blowing up. In Saudi Arabia, moreover, he denied the United States would sacrifice the resolution of regional conflicts in order to counter the Soviet threat to Gulf oil.
To this, the general Arab reaction was more thunder than lightning. In firm but gentle tones, King Hussein of Jordan, in an April 8 speech in Britain, pointed out that although "Western concern for the defense of oil fields in the Gulf region is understandable, no viable defense concept of the region will emerge in the absence of Arab cooperation and support.
"Arab support," he added, "will only be forthcoming once the central problem of Palestine is finally solved and the rights of the Palestinian people met."
On the Arab left, however, and in the Palestinian fold, there is growing pessimism that a comprehensive, negotiated peace will not occur during the Reagan presidency. The status quo in the Arab-Israeli conflict, they argue, does not mean just a lack of forward movement but the danger of an actual slide backward toward war.
"The next four years look like a time when the Israelis can take more of my people's land on the West Bank and southern Lebanon," says a dispirited, highly Westernized Palestinian (who requested anonymity). "I'm afraid we could see problems like instability in Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and the Gulf, if we don't achieve progress -- or at least the appearance of progress -- in our cause."
Western observers have detected a darkening mood among moderate Arabs who felt that, although Camp David was not to their liking, it might have been the prelude to a diplomatic effort by the US that eventually would help settle the Palestine question.
But Mr. Haig's statements in Jerusalem (as disclosed by Israeli Labor Party leader Shimon Peres) seemed to rule out negotiations with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as well as a Palestinian state.
What Haig said, if reported accurately, would not be a change from past US policy. But moderate Arabs believe that at some point the US and/or Israel must talk with the PLO --the widely recognized political voice for an estimated 3.5 million Palestinians -- if the problem is to be resolved.
Some Palestinians predict that the PLO now will have no choice but militancy against Israel and the US.
Largely missing from the concerns of moderate Arabs in the wake of Haig's visit is concern that the US will try to browbeat Egypt, Jordan, or Saudi Arabia into allowing US military bases or contingents on their soil to insure American interests are protected. The visiting secretary seems to have made it clear that a Rapid Deployment Force would use the facilities already granted by Oman, Somalia, and Kenya, and would enter the arena only at the request of an endangered country.
One pro-Western Arab points out that if the stumbling block to US-Arab is removed -- that is, if the Palestine issued is settled -- then "every Middle Eastern country is a potential US base in a crisis."
King Hussein and various Arabs interviewed in the past few days believe that a Soviet attempt to penetrate the region by force would be self-defeating anyway: "Armageddon may well result," the Jordan monarch warned. Threats short of this, say Arab moderates, could be dealt with locally if the US allows these countries to buy modern military hardware.
Even though many Arabs associate Haig with the military, his concern last week with colling the Lebanese crisis, and his emphasis on American diplomacy to do so, seems to have softened his image and made him appear to be more of a peacemaker. The fact that a Lebanese cease-fire took hold April 8 and has lasted more than a day at this writing lent credence to the secretary's statements that diplomatic resolution in this case "offers great promise."
There is some feeling that the Lebanese flare-up gave the secretary a chance to test diplomacy under fire, and that Haig appreciated the complexities and volatility of the area more and more as he traveled around. At the same time, his mission appears to have assured Arabs and Israelis alike that he is not about to abandon one side or the other, nor to exacerbate any of the sensitive situations deliberately.