A world awaiting Washington
History won't wait.
Foreign affairs are crowding in on a President in Washington who is still trying to give priority attention to domestic economic affairs.
A military coup d'etat in Guatemala further unsettles a Central American situation where Mr. Reagan is trying to pursue a forward strategy in the face of stiffening opposition both from public opinion and the Congress.
The arrival of the Japanese foreign minister in Washington forces the President to reach for trade concessions from the country vital to the containment of Soviet expansion in Asia. Mr. Reagan can't afford to offend the Japanese yet must try to extract from them something to allay rising resentment in the Congress over Japanese imports.
A political crisis in Israel underlines the fact that right now may be Washington's last best chance to revive the Camp David peace process for the Middle East and head off another Arab-Israel war. These three international dramas have eclipsed the plight of the Poles, who face worsening economic austerity as well as a remorseless reimposition of Communist political controls. But the third of the three, all by itself, is probably the most urgent, dangerous, and difficult to handle.
Tension on the West Bank reached a new peak after the Israeli authorities dismissed the elected mayor and town council of El Bireh, an Arab town near Jerusalem. The deed triggered rioting over much of the West Bank. Arab youths set up roadblocks and threw stones at Israeli soldiers. During a week of rioting at least five Arab youths were killed during the disturbances and another was found dead five days after having been abducted from his home by Israeli settlers.
The bloodshed triggered a political crisis in Israel, where a debate over occupation methods used by Israeli troops led to a motion of no confidence in the government of Prime Minister Menachem Begin. The debate ended in a tie vote of 58 to 58. Mr. Begin chose not to resign.
The rioting and the bloodshed spring from a rising sense of desperation among the Arabs of the West Bank. They thought the Camp David peace process would bring them liberation from Israeli occupation. They were, in fact, promised ''autonomy'' under the Camp David formula devised and signed by former United States President Carter.
But the autonomy they were promised was expected to be negotiated and put into effect by the time Israel completed its withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula on April 25, now less than a month away. Israel will get its formal peace with Egypt out of Camp David. But the price for that peace was supposed by the American negotiators to have involved both the return of Egypt's lost territories and ''full autonomy'' for the Arabs of the West Bank.
The peace with Egypt is nearly complete. But instead of moving toward autonomy for Palestine Arabs, Mr. Begin has continued to checkerboard the West Bank with new Israeli settlements. There is no longer serious pretense about his eventual purpose. It is, in effect, to annex the West Bank to Israel.
Is it too late to reverse the process? Probably. Only firm insistence by Washington could change the trend.
Is President Reagan likely to take a stand his predecessor failed to take on behalf of the West Bank Arabs? Mr. Carter's foreign policy spokesman, Zbigniew Brzezinski, put the situation this way at a recent Washington breakfast:
''Begin has walked away from what he committed himself to - full autonomy. He has said autonomy for the people, not for the territory; autonomy administratively, but not legislatively. We thought we had an agreement on no more settlements on the West Bank until negotiations with the Palestinians; and Begin reinterpreted that as meaning no more settlements until negotiations with the Egyptians on the peace treaty.''
Why didn't Mr. Carter take issue with Mr. Begin?
''We felt a split might destroy everything,'' replied Mr. Brzezinski.
So President Carter let Mr. Begin ''walk away'' from what the Palestine Arabs were supposed to get out of Camp David. Now it is up to President Reagan to face the same question. Will he insist on honoring that section of Camp David written for the benefit of the West Bank Arabs, or also walk away from it, and from them?
Walking away would avoid a ''split'' with Mr. Begin. But it also would allow Mr. Begin to proceed with the steady annexation of the occupied territories. Down that road, in the opinion of almost all Middle East experts, lies an almost inevitable future war, with the Arab states almost inevitably looking to Moscow for help since they see none in Washington.
But in Washington this past week President Reagan had more immediate problems. The Japanese foreign minister had come to call. Congress is clamoring for relief from Japanese imports. But Japan, which must export to live, feels that the real remedy for the imbalance in US trade with Japan lies in Mr. Reagan's hands.
High interest rates keep the dollar high. The high dollar means high export prices for American goods. Let the dollar go down in relation to other currencies, and American exports would rise and imports fall.
Behind that argument is the plain fact that without an economically strong Japan in the Far East there could be no effective containment of Soviet expansion in that part of the world. Japan provides the economic strength that is essential to all the independent countries of Asia, including mainland China. Mr. Reagan had to be gentle with his Japanese visitor no matter how much he might have liked to be rough.
Fortunately, for once there did seem to be some slight improvement in the Central American situation. At least the Mexicans think they may have worked out a formula that will bring Washington back into diplomatic negotiations with Nicaragua. Nicaragua is the key country in Central America now. It has influence with the rebels in El Salvador. It probably can influence the rebels in Guatemala.
If Nicaragua would swing back toward good relations with Washington - and cease acting as though it were a client of Fidel Castro - things might ease for Mr. Reagan in that part of the world.