Middle East

The situation in the Middle East is somber indeed. President Reagan's policies have not saved Lebanon, Syria's influence in that country is spreading, and moderate Arab nations have been unable to exert strong leadership in the region. Also, a dispirited Israel grapples with substatial economic problems.

In the near future a graver challenge may loom, if as expected Iran mounts a major offensive against Iraq -- and if it makes significant advances.

And underlying everything remains the fundamental and rending problem of the future of Palestinian Arabs.

Despite all that, there are glimmers of positive signs that could eventually result in modest progress in Lebanon or elsewhere in the Middle East. Most important is renewed communication, after a period in which it had been lacking.

The United States and leading moderate Arab nations are talking and sharing ideas. At the White House this week President Reagan has met with Jordan's King Hussein and Egypt's President Mubarak. They do not agree on such fundamental issues as whether Israel should withdraw from southern Lebanon, or whether the US at this time should deal directly with the PLO.

Conventinoal wisdom holds that the US will be unwilling to undertake major diplomatic initiatives before the November election and that the effort by the two moderate moderate Arab leaders thus will not bear fruit now. Yet substatial progress should never be ruled out, election year or no, and efforts toward an improved Middle East situation should continue. In any case, the willingness of the two Arab leaders and the President to talk frankly is a positive step.

Further, top officials of the US and other Western nations are now talking with the new leader of the Soviet Union, which is a backer and supplier of Syria i the Lebanese conflict. Tentative signs exist that Konstatin Chernenko desires relations with the West that are less confrontational than his predecessor's.

The possibility exists, although at the moment it appears slim, that the United Nations will ultimately agree to provide a peacekeeping force for Beirut, to replace the four-power force that is being removed. The UN Security Council began consideration of the issue Wednesday.

Crucial to eventual success of the idea is gaining agreement from Syria and the Soviet Union on whatever force is ultimately recommended. Initial Soviet conditions were not encouraging, and the USSR can be expected to employ its Security Coucil veto unless both nations find the UN force acceptable. But even if they do, other questions remain: Will member nations be willing to send troops to such an unstable area, and will there be a peace to keep?

Lebanese President Gemayel, whose effective authority is limited primarily to east Beirut, at this writing is believed ready to try to appease his Muslim opponents by backing off from his nation's treaty of May 17 with israel. Israel has warned against such action.

In any case the hour is so late, and Gemayel's position so weak, it is doubtful that such action now could save his position and permit him to reconstruct a variable national government.

Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, whose forces scored such a major victory over Gamayel's Christian-dominated army this week, insists he will settle for nothing less than a Gemayel resignation.

The challenge is great for nations working toward peace in Lebanon and elsewhere in the Middle East. But the effort needs to be continued. The signs of progress so dimly discernible are encouragement to keep on.

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