Haig shifts US priorities in Mideast; Palestinian issue overrides Soviet threat to region
Cairo — American strategic priorities in the Middle East are shifting.
The question of Palestinian self-government, originally played down by the Reagan administration in favor of a view toward stopping Soviet encroachment, is now at the forefront of American Middle East diplomacy.
Arab officials indicate they are pleased with the shift, though they argue it still has not gone past recognizing that the Palestinian problem is complex and in need of solving.
''There is much urgency in what Secretary of State (Alexander) Haig is doing now,'' an Egyptian official involved in the sessions with Mr. Haig told the Monitor.
''He sees how complex the Middle East is. I only hope he is not doing the same as (former Secretary of State) Henry Kissinger, coming to the Middle East to try to win the Nobel Prize or make money from writing books about the problems. It is really very dangerous to see the Middle East as an issue to build fame from.''
But Mr. Haig appears to be going out of his way not to dramatize his visits here in the past two weeks.
''It is clear and more clear as a result of our visit,'' Mr. Haig said as he left Tel Aviv Jan. 28, ''That the topics associated with autonomy are extremely complex and difficult. There remain very important difficulties in many areas, but there has been progress in some fields.''
On his arrival in Cairo the same day, Mr. Haig called his last visit only a ''fact-finding survey.'' He added, ''On this visit we will seek to narrow the gap on a number of issues, . . . but without deadlines -- artificial or otherwise.''
There was scarcely a mention of Mr. Haig's favorite theme when he embarked on his first Middle Eastern tour as secretary of state a almost a year ago. At that time, Mr. Haig strongly advocated a ''strategic consensus'' between Israel and moderate Arabs (mainly Egypt, but also including Jordan and Saudi Arabia) directed against Soviet influence in the region. Questions such as the future of the 3.5 million Palestinians living under Israeli rule or as refugees in Arab countries trailed far behind the stop-the-Soviets view.
Israel was delighted with the approach. Arab leaders -- with the exception of Egypt's Anwar Sadat - howled disapproval. Jordan's King Hussein and Saudi Crown Prince Fahd lectured Mr. Haig on the danger of Israeli structural changes on the West Bank and the potential destabilizing effect that the unresolved Palestinian question could have on Arab moderates.
But events of the past year in the Middle East - beginning with fighting in Lebanon, extending through the Israeli bombing raids on Baghdad; annexation of the Golan Heights; and especially the assassination of Mr. Sadat -- appear to have redirected administration thinking.
''We are pleased that there is so much interest today in Palestinaian autonomy,'' the high-level Egyptian official said. He agreed that events, particularly the fast-approaching deadline for Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai , have remolded American foreign policy.
Mr. Haig has moved from ideological advocacy to third-party mediation. The complexity of the Palestinian problem, however, and the picky technical points reportedly have prompted him to begin considering, once again, appointing a special negotiator to pick up where he leaves off Jan. 30.
Israeli radio reported that on this trip Mr. Haig was floating compromise suggestions on (1) the size of the Palestinian council that would govern many aspects of life in the occupied territories during the five-year transitional period, (2) the rights to participate in the council of the 120,000 Palestinians living in east Jerusalem, and (3) the right of the council to veto Israeli rulings on land and water rights in the territory during the transitional period.
But in Cairo informed sources told the Monitor that Mr. Haig's proposals for compromise were not specific and did not cover all of the disputed points. This source said talks were sure to be more finely tuned next week when Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak visits Washington.
Mr. Haig emphasized that so far there is no ''made-in-America plan to solve all the problems.'' Instead, he told reporters after meeting with Mr. Mubarkak, ''we have some suggestions on some of the problems involved. The differences are wide. It is an extensively difficult subjext.'' He added with apparent weariness: ''We have a lot of work to do and are far from finished. Far from finished.