Arabs struggle to patch up their disputes - so far, unsuccessfully

Intense diplomatic activity in several Arab capitals may be headed toward a major summit to tackle a growing list of problems facing the 21-nation bloc. Saudi Arabia appears to be spearheading the diplomatic drive to close the wide gap between militants and moderates. It set the standard by the somewhat astonishing red carpet reception of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi over the weekend.

The meeting between the leading Arab monarch and one of the world's leading revolutionaries was in part designed to set a precedent and help thaw the frigid propaganda various Arab states have been throwing at each other.

Colonel Qaddafi then went to Amman, Jordan, for talks with another traditional rival, King Hussein, during his unannounced four-nation tour, which diplomats claim was originally suggested by the Saudis.

The impetus for the frenzy of activity is fear that any of the four major issues now dividing the Arab world could soon become a flash point for deeper instability. There has been a recognized pattern of major upheavals within Arab governments following every conflict with Israel.

The four major areas of dispute are: withdrawal of foreign forces from Lebanon, the Iran-Iraq war, the PLO mutiny, and broader Middle East peace.

Saudi King Fahd is promoting the various bilateral contacts to determine if there is enough common ground among rivals to convene a summit that would lead to constructive resolutions on united action, envoys say.

But after two weeks of escalating momentum, there are few concrete signs of a breakthrough. Indeed, the initial reaction among diplomats is that the various meetings - involving the Saudis, Libyans, Syrians, Jordanians, Iraqis, Algerians , Kuwaitis, and the PLO - have served only to accentuate differences rather than heal splits.

Syria responded to the rumblings of reconciliation with yet another rejection of the Lebanese-Israeli accord on withdrawal of foreign forces which it said was ''final and nonnegotiable.''

Libya has refused to back down from its support of PLO mutineers. PLO chairman Yasser Arafat and Colonel Qaddafi were both in North Yemen on Friday, but intermediaries were unable to arrange a face-to-face meeting. The two rivals agreed only to end verbal attacks on each other.

Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini rejected a truce offered by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which began Saturday.

And almost 10 months after President Reagan announced his Middle East peace plan, the tension between the Arab world and Israel has only increased.

Arab and Western envoys claim there will continue to be behind-the-scenes contacts over the next few weeks among the Arabs. It is also expected that a high-level United States official will try to meet with the Syrian leadership later this month about terms for the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon.

But it appears that the Saudis will not give up easily. A move that reflected the Kingdom's determination was the unusual approach to the Soviet Union, the first known private communication in more than 50 years.

Although the specifics of King Fahd's letter to Soviet leader Yuri Andropov have not been revealed, it is known to have dealt with the interrelated issues of the Iran-Iraq war and falling oil prices. Diplomats contend the Saudis hope the Russians will continue their drift toward support of Iraq in the Gulf war. They also say the Saudis hope the Soviets will limit their sales of oil on the spot market. However, traditionally the same kinds of messages have been relayed via Kuwait, which is the only Gulf state with formal ties to the Soviet Union.

Thus the main message appears to be the message itself, that the Saudis were willing to initiate contact with the Kremlin and allow leaks to the press about the contact.

Militants within the Arab bloc have long complained that the Soviets were unjustly being excluded from US-dominated peace efforts in the region. Several states have also criticized the conservative Saudis for not maintining relations with both superpowers.

Again, it would appear that the kingdom is prepared to set the example of a willingness to compromise with dramatic gestures that they hope will be followed by substance.

Time, as always in the Middle East, is the biggest obstacle. Each week that passes allows rivals to further entrench their positions, politically and militarily.

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