US expert's view; Hither and dither in the Middle East

Largely through his personal efforts, President Reagan has prevented a congressional veto of the sale of AWACS and related military equipment to Saudi Arabia. Undeniably, the AWACS issue involved a number of judgmental questions on which views might legitimately differ. The negative position of thoughtful senators and representatives, such as Robert Byrd, John Glenn, Lee Hamilton, and others, deserve all respect; in contrast, the orchestrated vilification of Saudi Arabia, to which so many congressional opponents allowed themselves to succumb, was a disservice to the nation. The ignorance of Saudi Arabia displayed in the course of the debate was a national disgrace. One distinguished senator gave as one of his reasons for opposing the sale the allegation that Saudi Arabia was blocking Israel from using the Suez Canal. We may hope that he has since studied his elementary geography books a bit more.

Despite initial fumbling by the administration, Reagan's success is a welcome development to all who believe that a balanced policy is necessary to preserve American interests in the Middle East. The security of Israel is indeed a national interest of the United States, but so is the need for strong relations with moderate Arab states in the area.

If handled right, the two need not be incompatible. A comprehensive Middle East peace is still needed, but cannot be imposed either by the US or by Israel. Rather, it will require the positive involvement of friendly, moderate Arab states, Saudi Arabia among them, as well as the Palestinians if it is to have any enduring quality.

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The President's success is important for two reasons:

First, presidential credibility has been sustained in the eyes of friends and foes alike, a critical psychological commodity for the effective conduct of American foreign policy. Those who denigrate the presidential credibility aspect either fail to understand what it means in foreign affairs or would have been only too pleased to have the President suffer a setback in the congressional arena. Such judgments are shortsighted and hardly help strengthen the already jaded American image abroad.

Second, the AWACS debate, as it evolved, had become not only a test of American presidential credibility, but also a vote of confidence or no confidence in Saudi Arabia. It should never have been allowed to mushroom in such a fashion, but it did. In consequence, more came to be at stake than Reagan's image; the whole concept of American-Saudi relationships was being challenged.

The US has had long, close relations with Saudi Arabia for more than 40 years. Every American president from Harry Truman onward has publicly articulated US interest in the territorial integrity and political independence of that country. Despite deep differences on the Arab-Israeli issue, we have worked closely and well with Saudi Arabia in recurrent area crisis situations. If a comprehensive Middle East peace is to be furthered, and if the American capability to meet a putative Soviet threat to the Persian Gulf area is to be bolstered, Saudi cooperation is essential.

This need not be in the form of written compacts, which is not the way the Saudis operate. I know from personal experience that cooperation with Saudi Arabia works just as effectively when undertaken through quiet arrangements concluded outside the glare of public debate.

The President might have found the AWACS controversy more manageable had he and his advisers taken stronger initiatives to solicit needed congressional support at an earlier point in time. Instead, they were appallingly slow off the mark. Unfortunately, moreover, apparent State Department/Pentagon differences of view as to what might be possible with the Saudis added to the confusion. We may hope that the ''Al-Cap'' show will get its lines coordinated and right a bit sooner in future issues of this kind.

Equally important, the President's efforts might have been easier if some of his own National Security Council staff had not so consistently voiced derogatory views of the Saudis and permitted themselves to be influenced by the rabid Saudophobia of self-proclaimed expatriate pundits who have never been to Saudi Arabia instead of using the administration's own considerable in-house expertise on the country. It is high time that a greater understanding of Saudi sensitivities and concerns be demonstrated in this country, and it is to be hoped that the aftermath of the AWACS debate will bring this about. At least the President has shown where he stands, and one may also hope that his NSC minions will take heed.

The Reagan administration now appears to be showing some interest in the Saudi peace plan mooted some months ago by Crown Prince Fahd. Whether or not that plan in its present form constitutes a reasonable basis for peace negotiations is debatable, though it should be recognized that it is closer to what is likely to be acceptable to Arabs than are the vague autonomy arrangements envisaged in the Camp David West Bank-Gaza accord.

True, Israel strongly opposes the Saudi peace plan. This is to be expected and is Israel's right. It may be hoped, however, that the administration will before long recognize that the Camp David autonomy negotiations are not likely to get anywhere. Whatever the initial intention behind them, and despite the best efforts of Ambassador Sol Linowitz, they have become a straitjacket rather than a process. Conceivably, a more active American role therein, one designed to give real meaning to Palestinian self-government in the West Bank and Gaza in terms of broad powers and responsibilities, could yet belatedly make something out of this sterile talkathon, but even this is unlikely.

For the moment, nevertheless, the Camp David autonomy talks must go on. In a peace process that has for these past two and a half years been allowed to stagnate, the choice is jettisoning Camp David or at least giving autonomy talks a final chance. Many Arabs and Europeans believe Camp David is already dead and would like to see it buried.Measured in terms of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, Camp David is very much alive. While Egypt and Israel may be expected to honor their obligations toward each other under that treaty, discreet American encouragement that both do so is desirable. The West Bank-Gaza autonomy talks, on the other hand, were stillborn and have never had real life breathed into them. They might have offered hope to the Palestinians, but were allowed to become little more than a charade.Ambassador Linowitz earlier suggested that another six months would see them to success. Few share such optimism, but let them continue for that time to ascertain once and for all whether they offer even a modicum of hope that something acceptable not only to Egypt, Israel, and the US, but also to moderate Arab states and to the Palestinians, can somehow emerge from them.

In doing so, however, two points are important.First, there is no reason why Egypt should be pressed to sign a patently unacceptable West Bank-Gaza autonomy agreement by April 1982, at which time final Israeli withdrawal from Sinai is to be completed. The two Camp David accords were consciously legally unlinked at Israeli insistence. Israel has always insisted that the obligations of the parties under the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty are totally independent of progress or lack of progress in the autonomy talks.There is no reason therefore why any autonomy agreement needs to be concluded, unless it be judged by all participants to be a good one, i.e., at least passably acceptable to the moderate Arab states and the Palestinians, by the time Sinai withdrawal is to be completed. If nothing emerges that offers reasonable prospects of being accepted in the Arab world by April, as I suspect will be the case, the time will finally have come to bring an end to this dead-end exercise and to cast around for a broader Middle East peace forum with other participants who have an interest in peace in that area. There is nothing sacrosanct about Camp David and it is probable that its once important, but limited value has about run its course.Second, if the Saudis and Jordanians - let alone the Palestinians - have reservations about Camp David, there is nothing capri-cious about this. Nor does it suggest a lack of desire on their part in Middle East peace. It simply reflects their conclusion that the Camp David West Bank-Gaza autonomy accord is gravely flawed and that nothing that has happened since that agreement was signed has warranted altering their judgment on this matter.But such a position hardly makes King Hussein and Crown Prince Fahd enemies of peace; it simply means that they are not prepared to buy a pig in a poke. That, unfortunately, is what autonomy for the Palestinians, as Israel conceives it, is from an Arab point of view. As Israel's views deserve respect, so do those of the Saudi and Jordanian leadership. In the final analysis, all sides will have to compromise if anything resembling a success is to come out of this sorry affair.In a broader peace context, the Saudi peace proposal could under certain circumstances have some value. It at least publicly demonstrates that, contrary to the assertions of critics of Saudi Arabia in this country, the Saudis too have an interest in peace. In its present form, it may be difficult to fuse into an ongoing peace process, but if I understand the Saudi plan correctly, each of its elements is subject to negotiation. The Reagan administration is right in insisting that the Saudi plan has some positive aspects worth exploring.Vigorous resumption of Middle East peace efforts has been too long delayed. Their prolonged stagnancy was at least an indirect cause of increasing the late President Anwar Sadat's vulnerability, which led to his tragic assassination. It is high time that peace efforts be actively revived and that innovative American ideas be put forth to do so.

The Reagan administration has declared its commitment to Camp David. This is fine, but the Reagan administration can also rightly disclaim any responsibility for the demonstrably flawed aspects of Camp David, notably the autonomy document. It would be well advised to keep its options open, even at the risk of occasional Israeli displeasure, in seeking ways and means to further a real, comprehensive peace in the area.American interest in Israel's security is abiding and should be so. This is by no means inconsistent, however, with eventually breaking out of the Camp David concrete mold. Only if peace is meaningfully advanced in the Middle East area can that ''strategic consensus,'' which seems to be the fixation of this administration, hope to take on some area-wide meaning.Secretaries Haig and Weinberger are able, dedicated men. But ability and dedication, if not put to practical use, mean little. Neither the ponderous pauses of the secretary of state's press conferences nor the banalities that sometimes emerge from those of the secretary of defense are adequate substitutes for a coherent American foreign policy - not in the Middle East or anywhere else. We often criticize Middle East leaders for confusing rhetoric with effective action, yet we seem these past 10 months to have fallen into that same trap ourselves.President Reagan should not rest on his laurels. It is time that he and his principal advisers finally formulate a strong, coherent and balanced Middle East policy, one based not solely on military considerations, but also on recreating a climate of political good will for the US in that important region of the world. AWACS deployment, broad joint military exercises, and ringing declarations of support for friends have some value, but are in the last analysis no more than posturing. Diplomatic agility and initiatives are needed to produce solutions to the area's problems, and the administration must still show the most basic of foreign policy skills - the ability to juggle more than one ball at a time.Hermann Frederick Eilts, former US ambassador to Egypt, is University Professor of International Relations at Boston University.

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