The Middle East is a chessboard. A game is being played upon it. Moscow made an important pawn move last week. It extended full diplomatic recognition to the PLO. The next move is Ronald Reagan's.
The stakes are high - nothing less than ultimate control over the flow of oil from the Middle East to the industries, the homes, and the highways of the modern industrial world. Who will have that control 10 years from now? Will it be Moscow, or the United States and its friends and allies?
The experts who are counselling the players can see ahead to the end of the game - depending on the next move. Here are the two different ways the game can go, depending on the next crucial move by Mr. Reagan in Washington.
In the first scenario (which ends with the West winning) Mr. Reagan persuades Israel to fulfill the Camp David plan in its next two major projects. Israel is to pull all its troops out of the last segment of the Sinai peninsula by next April, and in the meantime Israel will grant local autonomy to the Arabs of the occupied territories.
If the second part is bona fide, if Israel actually frees the Arabs from Israeli military occupation, if it gives them control not only over their own persons in the streets but also over the water and land resources of their territories, then a big change on the Middle East chessboard will begin.
If the above happens Egypt will be free to continue with the process of opening up full peaceful relations with Israel. The governmnet of Egypt will be justified in Arab eyes by the freeing of the Palestine Arabs and the prospect for them of someday achieving true political independence.
In that event Egypt will also appear to be justified in the eyes of the other Arab countries. Jordan and Saudi Arabia will be the first to accept Egypt back into the Arab community. Iraq could eventually be brought around. Someday even Syria might join in the process of concluding a decisive peace with Israel.
In that event also the United States will be seen among the Arabs as a friend of them and of their causes. They will not feel that they need turn to Moscow for help against Israel and the United States. Israel's security will be protected by Israel's acceptance into the Middle East community by the Arab states (plus specific safeguards to be provided by the US).
If the game goes that way the Arabs will be willing to join in President Reagan's strategic consensus to keep the Soviets from intruding into the Middle East. The United States will be deemed to be the friend and protector of the Arabs. Western access to the oil of Arabia will be protected.
But then the game can go differently, as many of the experts think it probably will go. In this alternate version Israel begins to hesitate over the final transfer of the Sinai peninsula to Egypt and offers the Palestine Arabs nothing more than control over sanitation and street cleaning in their villages. In that event the new President of Egypt will come under increasing pressure both from Muslim fundamentalists at home and from the other Arab countries to repudiate Camp David.
At some moment Israel's hesitation will then lead to a break in the Israeli-Egyptian peace process. Egypt will pull out, repudiate its peace treaty with Israel, and join the Arabs of the confrontation front.
At that point both Israel and the Arabs prepare for the next war. In that next war the United States would provide Israel with the means for its defense. The Arabs would then turn to Moscow for the military means of protecting themselves against Israel. There would be a serious danger of US-Soviet confrontation. Even if that danger can be avoided the Soviets reenter the Middle East as the champions, protectors, and friends of the Arabs and in effective control of the flow of oil out of the region.
Moscow is of course hoping that the game will go the second way. Its extension of diplomatic recognition to the PLO is likely both to get on the inside track with the Arabs and to help along the breakdown of the Camp David process.
In 1948 the state of Israel was declared by a group of Zionist leaders meeting at the Tel Aviv Art Museum. The time was midnight of May 14. That was 6 p.m. of the 14th in Washington. American recognition of the new state of Israel was signed and announced at the White House as soon as a radio carried the news from Tel Aviv. US recognition was timed at 6:11 p.m. The Soviet union declared its recognition of Israel on May 17. The Soviet recognition was ''de jure.'' The original US act was ''de facto'' and did not become ''de jure'' for another year. The Soviets at one time liked to claim they were the first to extend full legal recognition Israel. Last week, the Soviets unquestionably won the lead in recognizing the PLO. Your move, Mr. Reagan.