Middle East enjoys unusual calm as region's political climate cools

The volatile Middle East is enjoying an unusual period of calm. But the temporary set of circumstances that have caused the quiet are as ephemeral, say veteran Mideast observers, as the late summer itself.

In fact, just over the horizon, the United States is facing crucial deadlines that loom in the face of a slowly developing US Mideast policy.

But you couldn't tell it by looking at the situation on the ground. Despite the often negative attitudes toward the US expounded by many Arab leaders, Western observers from various Mideast countries have told the Monitor they feel that rarely has the US been in such a healthy position -- however delicate that health may be -- in the Mideast.

This is due to factors, not necessarily attributable to the US, which have (1 ) coaxed old foes from the battlefield to the conference table, (2) made the Arab oil weapon virtually obsolete, and (3) given the US administration an early reputation for evenhandedness between Israel and the Arab bloc.

Perhaps the most surprising development is the durability of the cease-fire in southern Lebanon, which indirectly involves Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Despite periodic minor violations involving Palestinian factions and the Israeli-backed militia of Lebanese Maj. Saad Haddad , officials with the United Nations interim forces in Lebanon (UNIFIL) say the cease-fire has become "a fact" and that no direct violations have been registered in the weeks since fighting stopped July 24.

The cease-fire, arranged by US special envoy Philip C. Habib with Saudi Arabian assistance, preceded by one month the revival of another US-arranged diplomatic achievement -- the Camp David autonomy process. Suspended for 15 months, the autonomy talks between Egypt and Israel are due to resume Sept. 23 in Washington.

Further favoring America in the Mideast, diplomats note, is the continuation of the Saudi-engineered oil surplus (still running at around 3 to 3.5 million barrels per day despite a Saudi cutback of 1 million barrels per day). The Reagan administration has not had to face what was a constant worry in the Carter years -- the possibility of an Arab oil embargo in order to pressure the US into altering its support for Israel.

Thus, according to Arab and Western analysts, when President Reagan meets Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin later this week in Washington, he will be dealing from a position of strength.

Even Israeli officials have noted this and have begun to change their attitude toward the $8 billion Saudi AWACS (airborne warning and control systems) package. The Israeli Foreign Ministry now admits the Begin delegation will not actively campaign against the AWACS, though it still opposes the deal.

Instead, say observers, Mr. Begin will emphasize Israel's strategic benefit to the US and argue that US weapons should be stockpiled at Israeli bases in case rapid intervention is necessary. Seen in this light, Israeli Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir's Sept. 6 criticism of Saudi Arabia for its "negative role" in the Mideast may not be so much directed at getting Congress to block the AWACS as at insuring Israel is always seen as America's No. 1 ally in the Mideast.

Nonetheless, diplomats and Arab officials agree that the Reagan administration is still at a crucial crossroads in the Middle East and shows no signs yet of promulgating a comprehensive policy toward the region. They believe it will be 1982 before President Reagan launches a Mideast policy.

A sign of the dispatch with which Mr. Reagan acts, an Egyptian official says, will be when and whether he appoints a permanent Mideast negotiator -- a post in the Carter administration that was last held by Sol Linowitz and that under President Reagan has been carried out ad hoc by Mr. Habib.

If Mr. Reagan does not act before the beginning of 1982, observers believe he will be pushing the limits of most of the current positive trends:

* The PLO-Israeli cease-fire could collapse at any time, say both Israeli and American officials. The Israeli military continues to complain that the Palestinians are building up forces in southern Lebanon, and PLO officials remain cynical about Israeli intentions.

* Camp David has only until next April before the Egyptian-Israeli stage runs out. When the final section of the Israeli-occupied Sinai Peninsula is handed back to Egypt, many diplomats say, Egypt's incentive to bargain with Israel -- and suffer continued ostracism from the Arab world -- may reach its practical end.

* Oil industry experts caution that continued pressure on Saudi Arabia by other oil producers -- notably Nigeria, Libya, and Iraq -- may cause the Saudis to cut production further than the 10 percent recently announced, or even to agree to raise prices.

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