Events are forcing the Reagan administration to begin a reassessment of its still-evolving Middle East policies. With a fragile cease-fire in place in Lebanon. President Reagan's special envoy, Philip C. Habib, is returning to Washington to help with the rethinking process.
Israel's strike against Iraq's nuclear reactor and its more recent attacks into Lebanon have demonstrated that Israel is the dominant military power in the Middle East. But the Israelis' devastating bombing raid of July 17 on the city of Beirut diminished the moral edge that the Israelis have always appeared to hold in this country over their Palestinian opponents. It also shook some top Reagan administration officials, causing them to start taking a second look at the costs and benefits of the US-Israeli relationship.
All this helps to explain why some Arab diplomats are not as upset as one might think they would be over the pounding which the Israelis delivered to southern Lebanon and to beirut. As one Egyptian diplomat explained it, there was a "vacuum" in US policy and the Israelis took advantage of it. But as this diplomat sees it, the Reagan administration's "confrontation with reality" in Lebanon has begun an educational process within the administration that might lessen the "pro-Israel" tilt of US policy.
"The Reagan people started with a concept," said one Arab ambassador. "Then they came up against reality . . . . Whether we like it or not, it's in the US self-interest . . . to address the Palestinian problem."
Until recently, the Reagan administration had given the Palestinian problem low priority, focusing instead on moves to create a coalition against Soviet influence in the region. President Reagan's own view appeared to be that the Palestinian problem was largely a refugee problem and that the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) amounted to little more than a terrorist organization.
But leaders of the PLO seem to view the cease-fire in Lebanon as a victory for them. In their view, it forced the United States and Israel to take the PLO into account as an important force in the Lebanon drama and to deal with it, at least indirectly, in order to achieve the cease-fire. The PLO now has an opportunity to demonstrate that it can stick to an agreement and keep its military forces in order.
Saudi Arabia was reported by US officials to have played an important behind-the-scenes role in helping to arrange the cease-fire. Some Saudi and American officials now hope that this will help soften opposition in the US Congress to the sale of sophisticated US radar planes to Saudi Arabia.
[Representatives of Saudi Arabia and other Arab League states were reported by Reuters July 26 to have made further progress toward defusing the Lebanon conflict. Reuters said Arab mediators obtained an agreement from the Christian Maronite militants not to seek further help from Israel.]
What the PLO leaders clearly hope, meanwhile, is that the US will come to the conclusion that it is not enough to deal with the PLO through the Saudis or other intermediaries and that it must at some point deal directly with the PLO.
But what happens next in Washington may depend more on Egypt's President Sadat than anyone else. President Sadat's relations with both the PLO and the Saudis have been strained ever since he made his peace with Israel. Mr. Sadat has never had any great love for the PLO. But the Egyptian leader has contended that as a matter of realism the PLO would at some point have to be taken into account if the US was to achieve a broader Middle East peace.
Sadat will be meeting with President Reagan on Aug. 5 and 6. It is not yet clear how hard he will push for a resumption of negotiations with Israel over Palestinian "autonomy." But the feeling is growing among some specialists in Washington that a new US initiative may be called for particularly now that US public opinion toward Israel is in flux.
There has been much questioning of Israel's recent actions in Lebanon in the US Congress. Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R) of Indiana told the Cable News Network July 26 that Israeli actions have made it difficult for the US to obtain the cooperation of Arab states.
Asked if the US would eventually have to make formal contact with the PLO, Mr. Lugar said. "WE're going to have to talk to a lot of people, and they're all going to have to be a part of the settlement. And that may include some persons that we've not been recognizing formally."
Although White House officials say Reagan remains convinced that Israel is a "strategic asset" to the US, some of his advisers clearly regard Saudi Arabia as a str ategic asset of equal, if not greater, importance.