Where Arabs may turn if AWACS deal is thwarted

Mounting Arab frustration at the hammerlock which Israel is repeatedly able to exert on American Middle East diplomacy is reviving pressures in the Arab world to swing away from the United States and toward the Soviet Union.

The three immediate issues influencing Arab thinking are:

One, the proposed US sale of five sophisticated AWACS radar surveillance aircraft to Saudi Arabia. This the Reagan administration looks increasingly unable to put through in the face of well-organized opposition from the pro-Israel lobby in the US Congress.

Two, US willingness (as perceived in the Arab world) to proceed with a new strategic relationship with Israel -- despite the efforst of Israeli and pro-Israeli interests to block the AWACS plane sale to Saudi Arabia.

Three, the negotiating of a blueprint for "full autonomy" for the Palestinians in accordance with the Camp David agreements. This looks like a fading dream -- despite the resumption on negotiations later this week -- given given the apparent commitment of Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and his hard-line Cabinet associates to eventually annexing the West Bank and Gaza.

The brewing crisis in US-Arab relations over these issues tends to support the arguments of those who say that US national interests and Israel national interests do not necessarily coincide and sometimes may well be in stark conflict, regardless of propaganda from Israel and its more zealous US supporters.

The way the wind is blowing was indicated in the outcome of a weekend meeting in Benghazi, Libya, of the Steadfastness Front of four hard-line Arab states (Libya, Algeria, Syria, and South Yemen) and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).

Not only did they recommend that the Arab world turn now to the Soviet Union but also that Arab states should consider using against the US both the oil weapon and the threat of withdrawing from American banks and institutions the money they have invested there.

Admittedly, moderate Arab states have hitherto resisted any such suggestions. And admittedly again, three of the four Arab states at the Benghazi meeting already have treaties of friendship with Moscow. But alongside this should be noted the following, at least as straws in the wind:

* Last week when Egyptian President Sadat expelled the Soviet ambassador and six of his staff, plus some 1,500 Soviet Technicians, he stopped short of breaking diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union. Presumably he recognizes the value of keeping a line out in that direction.

Kuwait, one of the conservative oil states of the Gulf, has already taken the unprecedented step of establishing diplomatic relations with Moscow, and the Kuwaiti foreign minister visited the Soviet Union earlier this year.

* Both Kuwait and the United Arab emirates (UAE) -- another oil-rich conservative Gulf state -- played host to Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi within a day or two of his having signed a treaty of friendship with two Soviet clients, Ethiopia and South Yemen, expressly aimed at countering the growing US influence in the Gulf.

* On the occasion of the visit to the UAE of Colonel Qaddafi, the UAE government agreed to represent Libyan interests in the US, from which the Reagan administration recently expelled all Libyan diplomats. The UAE government took this step fully aware of the tension between the US and Libya in the wake of the shooting down of two Libyan aircraft by the US Sixth Fleet over the Gulf of Sidra and of Colonel Qaddafi's flirtation with the Russians.

* In addition to the Kuwaiti foreign minister, another significant Arab moderate to visit Moscow this year has been King Hussein of Jordan.

Alongside this, there are a number of questions about the credibility of any eventual threat by the moderate Arabs to throw themselves into the arms of the Soviets.

Is the Soviet Union, for instance, in any better position than before to force Israel to "deliver" on the Palestinian issue and disgorge the West Bank and Gaza -- so emotionally and politically important to virtually all Arabs?

The answer is no -- unless Moscow is prepared to risk nuclear confrontation with the US in the process.

Would the conservative and deeply Islamic royal house of Saudi Arabia be willing in the last resort to place its future in the hands of Moscow's atheistic communists?

The answer is almost certainly not. US awareness of this blunts in American eyes any Saudi threat to turn elsewhere -- and makes the "elsewhere" more likely to be Western Europe than the Soviet Union, an irritating but hardly menacing alternative.

Would the Soviet Union be prepared to respond unreservedly to moderate Arab overtures, given the humiliations and setbacks visited on the Russians by Arabs since Nikita Krushchev concluded his first arms deal with then Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser a quarter of a century ago?

The answer: Moscow may hesitate to respond unreservedly but probably would not be able to resist the temptation to respond cautiously.

For the Russians, the Middle East has always been a strategically attractive and important area at their backdoor. Since the days of Peter the Great, it has meant possible access to warm water for the Russian navy, via either the Mediterranean or the Gulf.

The Russians fought the Crimean War on Middle East issues. The Czar sought eventual control of the Dardanelles in the early days of World War I, and Stalin made a bid for some Turkish provinces, for Iranian Azerbaijan and Kurdistan, and for Libya immediately after World War II. Today, in addition to the attraction of warm water, there is oil.

Since the end of World War II, the Kremlin has smarted repeatedly at its exclusion from any steady participation in overall Middle East decisionmaking. Under the Nixon presidency, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger used Moscow in 1973 to bring about a ceasefire in the Arab-Israeli war of that year, and Soviet hopes were raised when they were subsequently admitted to co-chairmanship with the US of the Geneva conference on the Middle East in December of the same year.But the conference was short-lived.

In October 1977, under the Carter presidency, Soviet hopes were revived when the US and USSR -- over the signatures of Cyrus Vance and Andrei Gromyko -- proposed jointly a resumption of the Geneva conference, still under the joint chairmanship of their two countries. But again Soviet hopes were short-lived because a month later Egyptian President Sadat made his unexpected and dramatic visit to Jerusalem. Thereafter Middle East diplomacy took a dramatically different course, with the US again center stage and the Russians banished to the wings.

If the Sadat effort founders over Palestine in the months ahead, the Russians can be expected to be ready in those wings to come forward and exploit any new situation to get themselves back into a more active Middle East role -- short of any that might lead to outright nuclear confrontation with the US.

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