When presidents meet in search of peace

President Sadat's visit to Washington this week serves to remind the United States of how much the cause of peace can be served when men of stature put their minds to it. The Egyptian leader long ago won the warm admiration of the American people by his journey to Jerusalem in the boldest step of conciliation in the Middle East in thirty years. That step led ultimately to a peace treaty with Israel. It also led to a broad framework for negotiating the stickiest issue of all: the demand of the Palestinians for self-determination. After several years, however, the latter negotiation is in a state of limbo, and it will take diplomacy of the most imaginative -- the most "Sadatian" -- magnitude to overcome the impasse.

President Reagan has already had an exposure to the dangerous unpredictability of events in the Middle East. The flareup of fighting in Lebanon has driven home the point that settlement of the Arab-Israeli dispute will not wait while the United States pursues its goal of building up a regional military bulwark to Soviet expansionism. Now that a cease-fire is in place in Lebanon, Mr. reagan will surely use the occasion of Mr. Sadat's visit to explore the possibilities for the next breakthrough in the peace process.

There may, for instance, be an exploitable opportunity in the fact that the Palestine Liberation Oraganization has come as close as ever to being a party in peace negotiations. The US has officially ruled out PLO participation in autonomy talks. But the fact remains that the PLO, however indirectly, was involved in the negotiations that led to the Lebanese cease-fire and thus appears to have enhanced its diplomatic position. The fact that leader Yasser Arafat managed to put down the PLO militants who wanted to upset the truce also seems to bolster his standing. Is the time approaching, then, when the PLO could seize the initiative by unequivocally affirming Palestinian recognition of Israel's right to exist -- a move which would be another unscrambling of the logjam in the Middle East?

On the Israeli side of things, the picture does not appear sanguine. Prime Minister Begin's reelection and the kind of government he is forming suggests that Israeli policy toward the Palestinians and the West Bank even tougher than before. Indeed the process of establishing Jewish settlements in the West Bank has gone forward unrelentingly. Where there were fewer than 3,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank at the time of the Camp David agreements, today there are more than 20,000 and the number continues to grow -- a development posing a serious obstacle to peace.

Which brings us to Washington. If Mr. Reagan will be eager to hear out President Sadat on these and other issues, there is little question Mr. Sadat will be looking for some indication of where the new US administration is headed. That still remains extremely murky. There is yet no defined policy on such sensitive issues as Palestinian rights, Israeli security, UN Resolution 242 , the West Bank settlements -- even on the viability of the second Camp David agreement. If there is to be another constructive diplomatic leap in the Middle East, President Reagan will have to be willing to use his prestige and influence to move things off dead center -- to get something both from Israel and from the Palestinians. The PLO, for instance, is not likely to renounce its present official rejection of Israel unless it knows this would meet with a positive response in the White House and be followed up with strong US diplomacy.

There will, in short, be much for Presidents Reagan and Sadat to talk about. The result could be to help the US find a creative new approach in the qu est for peace.

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