Mideast dilemma: What happens after Israel pulls back from Sinai?

Behind the mounting tension in the Middle East are three conflicting scenarios about how to proceed on the Palestine issue once Israel has returned all of Sinai to Egypt April 25.

First, there is Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin's blueprint to trade return of all Sinai to Egypt for retention of Israeli control over the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. In those two territories live 1.2 million Palestinians.

There are also two Arab responses aimed at thwarting this apparent Israeli plan - the moderate, Egyptian nonviolent approach and the radical, violent approach of the Lebanon-based Palestine Liberation Organization.

To deal with the threat from the PLO, Israel has long made it clear that it is prepared to invade Lebanon if necessary to deal a knockout blow to the PLO bases there. But there had not till now seemed to be major issues with the Egyptians likely to delay the withdrawal from Sinai as scheduled this month.

Over the past weekend, however, the Israelis have publicly accused the Egyptians of breaches of the Camp David accords that justify (in Israeli eyes) a postponement of the return of the last strip of Sinai to Egypt.

This has naturally increased tensions--as has the Arab reaction to an Israeli soldier's running amok with a gun April 11 at the Dome of the Rock, the holiest Muslim site in Jerusalem. So explosive is the situation that the US government has sent the No. 2 man at the State Department, Walter J. Stoessel Jr., to the Middle East to try to keep the lid on things.

In terms of the immediate threat to Israeli lives, the violent PLO response to Israeli plans is more dangerous than the moderate nonviolent approach of the Egyptians. But if the apparent Egyptian plan gains momentum, it could be more effective in impeding Israeli annexation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip than any PLO campaign of terrorism.

This is because the Egyptian approach is based on negotiation, not force; on persuading Israel's other Arab neighbors to follow the Egyptian example and make peace with Israel in return for Israeli withdrawal from occupied Arab territories.

That other Arab lands might do this had till now seemed most unlikely. They had never ceased to excoriate the late President Sadat for coming to terms with Israel. But the assumption of the Egyptian presidency by Hosni Mubarak has begun to change the atmosphere.

Those Arabs who abused Mr. Sadat have treated Mr. Mubarak gently, and Mr. Mubarak has reciprocated. This bore fruit for the Egyptians last week when Kuwait allowed Mr. Mubarak to send his UN ambassador, Ahmed Esmat Abdel Meguid, to attend a meeting of nonaligned countries on Kuwaiti territory. Mr. Meguid was successful in preventing the meeting from specifically condemning the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty.

The Israelis profess to see in all this signs suggesting that Mr. Mubarak intends, once Sinai is returned to him, to swing into the Arab camp and lead it in putting pressure--by force if necessary--on Israel to surrender the West Bank and Gaza. And it is presumably to head this off that the Begin government is talking more loudly than before about perhaps not withdrawing from the last segment of Sinai April 25.

There is, however, an interpretation other than that voiced in Israeli fears about what Egypt is up to. It is that the low-key, but firm, Mr. Mubarak means exactly what he says - that he has no intention of reneging on Egypt's peace treaty with Israel, but will persist in his efforts to get the other Arabs to make peace, too.

What happened in Kuwait suggests that the Egyptian President is operating in an Arab climate less hostile to Egypt than at any time since 1977 (when the late President Sadat broke the ice with Israeli by going to Jerusalem).

The other Arabs, particularly those in Asia, are shaken by Iran's successful counteroffensive against Iraq. This disqualifies Iraqi strong man Saddam Hussein as a candidate for overall Arab leadership.

Syrian President Hafez Assad, another candidate for this role, is likewise disqualified because his support of Iran makes him odd man out among other Arabs. This leaves something of a vacuum into which Egypt may be able to move - provided it does nothing to offend Saudi Arabia.

If Egypt can move from this to leadership of a broader Arab campaign to get Israel to exchange peace for territory, US and international pressure on Israel to withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza is more likely to be forthcoming than if the only challenge is from PLO violence.

Hence Israel's concern about Egypt's future role--even if that role is peaceful.

From the point of view of Egypt and other Arabs seeking a deal with Israel on the basis of peace in return for territory, the big question is whether Israel's creeping annexation of the West Bank and Gaza has gone too far for it to be reversed except by force.

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