Three immediate challenges face the United States in the Middle East if it seizes the present crisis as an opportunity to further long-term stability in the area.
These challenges are:
1. To contribute to some kind of political settlement in a Lebanon shattered by the Israeli invasion that will give Israel a secure northern border and open the way to Israeli withdrawal.
2. To keep open the possibility of dialogue with the Palestinians -- still a national entity more than 3 million strong despite the pounding their armed men have taken from the Israelis -- so that their grievances and rights can eventually be addressed in an overall Middle East settlement.
3. To restore confidence and trust in the US on the part of three all-important moderate Arab governments in the area -- Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan. The three countries are dismayed by the apparent inability or unwillingness of the Reagan administration to prevent the Israelis from savaging Lebanon last week.
In the first of these tasks, Washington can count on the qualified support of Israel.
In the other two, it is likely to encounter all-out opposition not only from Israel but also from the strong pro-Israeli lobby within the US.
Israel can be expected to resist above all any suggestion of self-determination or autonomy for the Palestinians on the West Bank of the Jordan, seeing in it the thin end of the wedge for territorial compromise that could lead to dismemberment of the Israeli state.
But Israel's understandable insistence on a secure northern border (against Palestinian armed attack) is only one half of the basic equation underlying an eventual settlement. The other is meeting in some measure Palestinian grievances , as Charles Percy, chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, indicated on CBS television June 13.
One of the problems ahead will be to find Palestinians willing to engage in dialogue on the basis of compromise. Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) spokesman Farouk Khaddoumi, who appeared on NBC television June 13, came over as a no-compromise man, insisting that the only acceptable solution for him would be return to his home in Jaffa in a non-Jewish, secular Palestine.
But it should not be overlooked that -- harsh though it be - Mr. Khaddoumi is one of thousands of Lebanon-based Palestinian refugees from the now densely Israeli-populated coastal plain whose return home is least likely of all in any compromise. The result: Compromise is not in their vocabulary. At the same time, they are still a minority in the Palestinian diaspora.
Reports from Israel suggest that the government of Menachem Begin has yet to formulate precise details of the kind of Lebanon on its northern border most likely to promise peace and quiet on that frontier. Mr. Begin is said to want at least a 25-mile buffer zone free of Palestinians, policed by an international force preferably not provided by the UN.
Also to be decided is the role -- if any -- for the Syrians in Lebanon. Israel and the US would prefer to see all Syrian forces out of the country. But behind the Syrians are the Soviets, who made no friends among the Arabs in the area by their passivity during last week's Israeli operations against Palestinians and Syrians in Lebanon.
But apparently to try to regain some influence and prestige, Moscow has now sent to Damascus Gen. Yevgeniy Yurasov, first deputy commander in chief of the Soviet Air Defense Forces, to confer with Syrian Defense Minister Mustafa Tlas and other officials. Their discussions can be expected not only to cover Soviet replacement of Syrian losses, but also ways to maintain a role for both Russians and Syrians in the Middle East in the days ahead.
Another significant diplomatic journey was that of Israeli Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir to Paris June 14 for talks with the French government. Since the Crusades, France has always seen itself as protector of Lebanon's Maronite (Roman Catholic) Christians. France was the colonial power in Lebanon between the two world wars. And as recently as May 26, French Prime Minister Pierre Mauroy paid a one-day visit to Beirut ''to reaffirm France's presence in Lebanon.''
To Israelis, Lebanon's Christians are potential allies against the Palestinians and Syrians (and Muslims generally). In reshaping Lebanon politically, the reassertion of Christian dominance is clearly a possible Israeli aim, and Mr. Shamir will probably be seeking French help to this end.
Meanwhile, as a reminder of their whip hand in Lebanon, the Israelis have moved forward into Baabda, site of the presidential palace, on the outskirts of Beirut. At the palace, President Elias Sarkis summoned a seven-man ''National Salvation Board'' to gather June 14 to discuss putting together again the country's shattered pieces.
The seven members summoned are: the President (a Maronite); the prime minister (a Sunni Muslim); the foreign minister (Greek Orthodox Christian); Bashir Gemayel, leader of the right-wing Christian paramilitary Phalangists; a representative of the Shia Muslim paramilitary Amal movement; a Greek Catholic; and Walid Jumblatt, the Druze leader of the leftist National Movement.
As for the moderate Arab governments whose interests the US cannot overlook, an interesting development is Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's flight to Saudi Arabia June 13 to offer condolences on the passing of King Khalid. It is the most dramatic sign of Egyptian-Saudi rapprochement since the late President Sadat signed the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel.
[See Page 4 for story on Mubarak in Saudi Arabia.]
King Hussein of Jordan also flew to Saudi Arabia to offer his condolences. Oncethese ceremonies are over, King Hussein can be expected to revive -- as an earnes of the latter's good faith -- his request from Wahington for F-16 aircraft and mobile Hawk surface-to-air missiles.
Even before their invasion of Lebanon, the Israelis and their lobby in the US had given notice they would fight to the end the Jordanian request.