With much of his domestic program now secure, President Reagan is plunging into the murky waters of Middle East diplomacy. As a first step, and as a gesture to the Arabs, the President has indicated that he considers some of the "moderate" Arab states, such as Saudi Arabia, to be potentially as close to the United States as Israel is.
But the President clearly differs with Egypt's President Anwar Sadat over the status of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in any new peace negotiations. The irrepressible Mr. Sadat seems to see opportunities for a broader peace in the current cease-fire in Lebanon and is pushing for eventually including the PLO in a peace settlement.
But the PLO issue would appear to be more of a problem for the future than for the present. Most important for Sadat for the moment, according to diplomats, is a need, first, to establish a working relationship with Mr. Reagan and, second, to get the American leader committed to giving high priority to further negotiations with the Israelis over the Palestinian issue. The initial impression after Sadat's first talk with Reagan on Aug. 5 was that he was doing well on both counts.
In a White House ceremony just prior to the meeting of the two presidents, Reagan was warm in his praise of Sadat the peacemaker. And Reagan went far toward meeting Sadat's desire to see the US continue as a "full partnerc in working toward a more comprehensive Middle East peace.
"Although the Americans have changed presidents, we have not altered our commitment to peace or our desire to continue building upon the achievements of Camp David," said Reagan at the welcoming ceremony for Sadat."We will walk the road together, and we will not be deterred."
In an interview with the Washington Star published Aug. 5, Reagan indicated a desire to bring other Arabs into the peace process. He praised Saudi Arabia as being of "inestimable help" in preventing a war between Syria and Israel in Lebanon.
To bring a more lasting peace to the Middle East, Reagan said, "We have got to get the help of some of the moderate Arab states and convince them that we can be allied with them as we are with Israel and that we're not in there biased for the part of one nation alone."
Following the first of three scheduled meetings between Reagan and Sadat, a senior Reagan administration official said that Sadat outlined for Reagan a possible "scenario" for securing peace between the Arabs and Israelis. But the official said Sadat also told Reagan that he realized the points of view of other Middle East leaders would have to be taken into account and that he was "patient" and open to "lots of variants" and "lots of options" in the search for peace.
One variant might eventually turn out to be a summit meeting among the leaders of Egypt, Israel, and the United States, Sadat was reported to have said.
According to the administration official, Sadat repeated a comment which he had made on the way to the United States via London about the current cease-fire agreement in Lebanon opening up new opportunities for peace. Sadat had stated during his London stopover that the PLO and the Israelis had, in effect, joined in such an agreement for the first time since 1948.
But the official said that Sadat also warned that the Middle East situation was dangerous, with the possibility of new violence erupting at any moment and only to the benefit of the adversaries of the US and Egypt.
Joseph Sisco, a former undersecretary of State amd Middle east troubleshooter for the Nixon and Ford administrations, predicted that the main benefit of the Reagan-Sadat meetings would be development of personal rapport and a working relationship between the two presidents.
"The personal equation is probably more important than anything else in the Middle East," said Mr. Sisco. "In addition to that, Sadat is clearly ready to start the Palestinian autonomy talks again. . . . He wants to make the point that Israelis have got to be flexible on that."
"The autonomy has got to go beyond allowing garbage collection for the Palestinians," said Sisco, who is now a Washington, D.C., consultant. "It has got to give the Palestinians a genuine role in self-government and lea ve open what the ultimate choice will be."