The Soviets, long bidding for Middle East diplomatic influence, are seething over a Reagan administration initiative designed to ensure just the opposite.
Moscow's hope, as reflected in its official media, is that pivotal Arab leaders like Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat and Jordan's King Hussein will yet reject the negotiating ideas set forth by Mr. Reagan in a televised speech Sept. 1.
Yet at this writing, five days later, the definitive position of the PLO, Jordan, and various other Arab parties remains unclear. An Arab summit - about to convene in Fez, Morocco - was expected to take up the subject.
Signaling Soviet concern, Pravda Sept. 6 preempted the Arab conference with a lengthy assault on Mr. Reagan's speech, which had called on Israel to halt Jewish settlement of the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip and envisaged eventual Palestinian self-government there in conjunction with Jordan.
Israel's public rejection of the Reagan ideas, said Pravda, was a mere ruse. The Reagan remarks, in substance, were deemed blatantly pro-Israeli. Pravda stressed - correctly - that Mr. Reagan's Middle East guidelines rejected the longstanding public demand by Mr. Arafat and most other Arab leaders for establishment of an independent Palestinian state. The Kremlin, Pravda said, favored such a state.
The problem for Moscow is this: to convince the PLO and Jordan, the Arab parties central to Mr. Reagan's vision of a Middle East settlement, that by rejecting the US initiative and playing on Soviet support for Palestinian statehood they can ultimately get a better deal than Washington is proposing.
The Soviets know very well they have no real chance of challenging American primacy in the Arab-Israeli diplomatic arena any time soon. If the Arab world is deeply resentful of close US ties to the Israelis, it also sees these ties as providing a theoretical leverage over Israel that the Soviets cannot match. But Moscow's immediate hope, as one senior Soviet put it in remarks to the Monitor, is to head off an American ''monopoly'' on Middle East diplomacy in the wake of the war in Lebanon.
Against this background, a Soviet newspaper Sept. 1 quoted King Hussein, a traditionally pro-Western monarch on increasingly friendlier terms with Moscow in the past few years, as saying it was in the Americans' own interests to accept ''the need for participation in the peace process by the Soviet Union and other countries wishing to make their contribution. . . .''
Arab sources here say that in late August the Soviets made a further, if symbolic, move to improve ties with King Hussein. In a private message to the Jordanians, Moscow formally rebutted Israel's contention that Hussein's majority-Palestinian nation constituted the Palestinian state Arabs have been demanding.
In the first such explicit statement on an issue previously left vague, the Soviets are said to have declared that a Palestinian state must be sited on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, leaving present-day Jordan to the Jordanian monarchy.
At the scheduled Arab summit, various factors still seemed capable of working in Moscow's favor. One is Syria, a front-line Arab state that the Reagan initiative leaves, like the Soviets, on the diplomatic sideline. Another factor is genuine Arab resentment over the US-Israeli alliance. A third is a long Arab tradition of diplomacy-by-emotion. And a final one is the agonizingly complex route any Middle East diplomatic initiative, Mr. Reagan's included, must trace.
Yet the Soviets know, too, that the Palestinian leadership has been militarily weakened and politically scattered by Israel's invasion in Lebanon. Syria's veto power, short of the threat of military spoilage potentially involving national self-immolation, may also have been trimmed. As for Jordan, King Hussein himself proposed a settlement not unlike Mr. Reagan's some years back. If the PLO comes on board, there's little reason to suppose he'll jump ship.
The fundamental Soviet concern is that the US may somehow snatch diplomatic victory from the war in Lebanon. Immediately after the Israeli invasion, Soviet officials were arguing Washington would fall victim to a scathing backlash in the Arab world.
Yet as US special negotiator Philip C. Habib pursued, and ultimately wrapped up, negotiations for PLO and Syrian withdrawal from besieged Beirut, the Soviets' privately expressed reading of events has changed.