Mideast: does the emperor have clothes?

More than half a dozen years ago, the director of the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee said of his lobbying efforts, ''If we have to make a case solely on the basis of the interest of Israel, we've had it. Basically, I think we are effective because we have a good case -- what is good for Israel is good for the United States.''

For several months now there has been a sufficient strain in US-Israeli relations to bring this proposition into question. Mr. Begin pulled it all together for us in his Dec. 20 dressing-down of the American ambassador. Most Israelis obviously saw the bombing of the Iraqi reactor, the bloody attack on the PLO Beirut headquarters, and the virtual annexation of Golan as being good for Israel. It is just as obvious from the official US response to these Israeli initiatives that Reagan and his aides do not consider them to have been good for the US.

Despite all of the talk recently about the failures of the late Anwar Sadat, Egypt's deceased president did have one success. He made the US a partner in the Middle East peace process. We now openly acknowledge a special American interest in Middle East peace that cannot be defined wholly in Israeli terms. As a partner in the peace process, the US government has developed a distinct point of view about events in the Middle East. Large numbers of Americans having diverse political sentiments see some of Mr. Begin's recent actions as being extreme.

Extremism is not a word that need always conjure images of evil. It simply alludes to something or someone who either does not share or fails to fit within our own sense of reality. We use the word to describe Qaddafi and those whom we call the radical Arabs. They apply it to us. For more than 30 years Arabs and Israelis have been hurling this invective at one another. Now we and the Israelis are using it to characterize the attitude of the other.

What did Mr. Begin mean, for example, when he said that no one could deter and frighten the Jewish community in the US with anti-Semitic propaganda? Is Mr. Reagan now anti-Semitic or is this just a well-tested formula that is meant to put the American President on the defensive? We might not be able to say that Mr. Begin is ''losing touch,'' but he certainly is speaking from a different reality than that shared by most Americans.

The idea of separate realities is a useful way of looking at extremism in the Middle East. Rightfully, the Arabs and the Israelis both claim national legitimacy. But each asks the world to judge its case according to a set of premises that includes absolutely no regard for the terms of reference of the other. For us, this attitude is extreme. The US reacts to what it sees as the excesses of the two sides by attempting to introduce equanimity, siding first with one and then with the other, only to discover that as we alternatively raise their hopes and dash their expectations we infuriate them both.

As it turns out, equanimity is no substitute for policy. It cannot bridge the chasm between Arab and Israeli realities. It only allows us to feel pious about ourselves.

Washington has fallen into the habit in recent months of contending that it has an implicit foreign policy that can be deduced from its actions. In a contest between two uncompromising realities, this won't do. Our efforts are suspect to Arab and Israeli alike. Insofar as we do not totally accept the reality of either, we hold a distinct perception -- a third sense of reality. We should elaborate on our distinctiveness, for in this reality we do possess the makings of a Middle East policy.

Upon coming to office, Mr. Begin announced that he would negotiate over but never surrender the West Bank and Gaza. He was equally adamant about Golan. Our statesmen might have taken sufficient hope from Israel's agreeing to withdraw from Sinai to conclude that Mr. Begin's statements were only a negotiating position. But the legal actions taken on Golan make it clear that Israel's Prime Minister means what he says.

What then is the purpose of the American-sponsored Camp David negotiations? Do we really believe that peace can result from them -- that any Palestinian would work with us to facilitate the variety of autonomy the Israelis envisage? We mask our confusion and the futility of our efforts with such easy sayings as, ''Camp David is the only game in town.'' In fact, Camp David is no longer a viable policy. With our present posture, we gain nothing from the Israelis and we leave the Arabs with the sense that we are involved in the most flimsy of efforts to deceive them. Arabs take Mr. Begin at his word.

Following the line of the old fable about mass self-deception, it is probably time for someone to liken our current Middle East efforts to the king who paraded down the street without clothes on while his subjects admired the royal garments they had been told he was wearing. In this case a simple observation by a child broke the spell and left the adults (including the king) appearing as fools.

For years now, the US has been attempting to manage rather than to resolve the Middle East problem. No doubt it will continue to do so as long as this is the easiest course to follow. Like all rational creatures of the Enlightenment, we are usually prepared to discount future dues when called upon to assess them against present costs. Nevertheless, in recognizing the third reality as a basis for policy, we will at least be better equipped to move when some incident occurs which has the same effect as the child of our fable.

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