''Instead of pushing matters in this area toward a peaceful settlement, the AWACS deal will only complicate things even further.'' This Cassandra-like warning note comes not from the Syrian government, whose close links to the Soviets might help to explain their opposition to the deal, but from a former Egyptian foreign minister long known for moderate views.
Ismail Fahmi was Anwar Sadat's foreign minister from 1973 to 1977, when he resigned in disagreement with Mr. Sadat's visit to Israel. During those four crucial years, Mr. Fahmi presided over a transformation of Egypt's foreign relations toward much closer links with the West.
But now, he warns that US policy in the region is in danger of going astray.
The AWACS deal, he told the Monitor, cannot be justified on the grounds of Saudi Arabia's military interests. ''Why should they need five of them,'' he asked, ''when even the sophisticated armies of NATO only deploy two?''
Fahmi asserts that fulfilling the stated military aims of the AWACS deal, as defined by the two parties involved, would require one, or at most two, AWACS planes.
The former minister recalled that President Reagan had assured members of Congress that the Saudi Air Force would not be able to operate the AWACS independently before 1990, and asked in whose interests their deployment would be made.
''The AWACS already in Saudi Arabia have not helped to defend Saudi airspace, '' he said. ''Everyone knows the Israelis penetrate it up to eight times each month with impunity.
''I am not against the Saudis acquiring four, five, or even 10 AWACS planes if they want them for prestige purposes,'' Fahmi allowed. ''But regarding Reagan's statement that the deal will boost the chances of peace in the Middle East - personally, I doubt it.''
''On the contrary,'' he said, ''I believe Israel will now become even more intransigent, and force Reagan to give them either two or three AWACS of their own, or some other sophisticated equipment, to balance the deal with the Saudis.
''And if Reagan doesn't do this, then the only way he can prove he is not anti-Israel - or anti-Semitic in their terms - would be to espouse the Israeli point of view on any Palestinian settlement,'' he added.
Fahmi also said he considered that ''as a direct result of the AWACS deal, and to please Israel, the US administration will now put enormous pressure on Egypt to accept Israel's terms in the Palestinian autonomy talks.''
He said he could already detect some signs that the Israelis were starting to insist on a new linkage between the progress of the autonomy talks and their own withdrawal from Sinai - despite the fact that hitherto they had always resisted any idea of direct linkage between the two halves of the Camp David process.
Moreover, Fahmi says, ''The Americans also appear to be backing Israeli attempts to insist on linkage this time.
''The US will help Israel to insist on an Egyptian agreement on autonomy before the Israelis' April 25 withdrawal date,'' he predicted. He then voiced a feeling rapidly growing in Cairo, that once Israel has withdrawn from Sinai, ''then Egypt can never be forced to sign a bilateral agreement on autonomy with Israel.''
Fahmi said he thought the Israelis were calculating that, if they could attain Egyptian agreement to an autonomy plan on the basis of the ''Begin plan'' or the ''Sharon plan'' now being formulated, ''then they would succeed completely in preventing any possibility of an Egyptian-Arab reconciliation.''
''This is the main aim of Israel's approach to Egypt,'' he charged. ''They want to keep Egypt out of the Arab orbit.''
''If Israel succeeds, it will be a catastrophe,'' he added.