Suddenly, the Middle East is in fashion. This week's visit of Saudi Arabian King Fahd is not expected to produce diplomatic waves or put the Middle East on the front burner of American foreign policy. But it does move the priority of a Mideast peace slightly higher.
Senior administration officials say the visit is an opportunity not only to explore bilateral issues, but also to sound out the thinking of Saudi Arabian leaders and those of other moderate Arab states about renewing the Middle East peace process. King Fahd's state visit -- the first by a Saudi monarch since 1971 and the first state visit in President Reagan's second term -- will be followed by a visit by Egyptian President Mubarak in March.
The Saudi monarch opened his visit by asking Mr. Reagan to support ``the just cause of the Palestinians.''
The moderate Arab states -- including Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt -- are eager to enlist the United States once again in a peace process leading to settlement of the thorny West Bank problem. But Secretary of State George P. Shultz has made clear that the US will not engage itself in Middle East peacemaking unless the Arabs and Israelis sit down and negotiate.
Tactically, keeping the Middle East in the background is a form of US pressure on the moderate Arab leaders to come up with concrete moves of their own, US officials say. Meanwhile, the Reagan administration is embarked on another review of Middle East policy, including US arms sales to the region. Pending completion of the review, expected to take four to six weeks, the administration recently suspended consideration of the sale of 40 F-15 jet fighters to Saudi Arabia.
It is only a matter of time before the arms purchase question is resumed, officials here say. But, they add, with the President focusing primarily on the budget and tax reform as well as increased aid for Israel, there is a desire not to overload Congress at the moment.
Saudi and other Arab leaders are aware of the President's reluctance to relaunch his Sept. 1, 1982, peace initiative. But, officials say, the Arabs feel this is a propitious moment to urge the US to renew the peace process, as this is the beginning of Reagan's second term and he does not have to worry about reelection and political fallout from a diplomatic d'emarche.
King Fahd is expected to try out a few ideas on the administration this week, get the US reaction, and share the outcome with his Arab colleagues when he returns. Meantime, Jordan, Egypt, and the Palestine Liberation Organization are trying to forge a joint statement that could serve as a stimulus to new negotiations.
According to informed sources, the Jordanians have been pressing the PLO for an unequivocal endorsement of UN Resolution 242, which calls for Israeli withdrawal from occupied Arab territory in return for secure borders. This resolution forms the framework for the Camp David accords and the Reagan peace plan but has never been embraced by the PLO. Sources say that the PLO is prepared to agree to ``a land for peace formula embodied in UN Security Council resolutions'' as the basis for negotiations without actually citing 242 and Resolution 338 (calling for carrying out 242).
If Jordan, Egypt, and the PLO do come forward with a common statement, says one administration official, this would represent a significant change which the US would have to take into account.
In terms of the prospects for progress, administration officials see a number of factors that reflect change in the Middle East and provide a basis for looking again at the possibilities for reviving negotiations. Among them:
The new Israeli government is more disposed to resolving the West Bank dilemma -- once it has extricated itself from Lebanon. Prime Minister Shimon Peres has said publicly that he is willing to enter into negotiations without conditions.
Jordan has reactivated its interest in the West Bank. King Hussein reconstituted the Jordanian parliament, in which West Bank Palestinians participate; he pressed for reforms in the Arab League, which diluted the power of the hard-line PLO; he met with PLO leader Yasser Arafat in Amman; and he was host to a Palestinian congress in the Jordanian capital.
Israel and Egypt are trying to warm up their relations after a period of friction.
Iraq, which has close relations with the Soviet Union and has been a hard-line rejector of the Camp David accords, has restored diplomatic ties with the US and pledged not to oppose an Arab-Israeli peace.
As President Reagan begins his second term, diplomatic experts believe he is not making the Middle East a high priority of his foreign policy. America's vital interests are not at stake, they say, and Prime Minister Peres is still too weak to face a showdown with the Israel's Likud Party and consolidate his own power. Preoccupation with the Israeli economy and the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Lebanon also militates against grappling with the West Bank issue.
Despite these circumstances, say diplomatic observers, the US would be shortsighted not to try to reopen another round of peace negotiations. ``In the short term the US can keep things on the back burner, but at some point we're going to see the consequences of a do-nothing policy,'' says William B. Quandt of the Brookings Institution, a National Security Council official in the Carter administration. ``If you believe there is any slim chance left for peace, you will not have a better combination of circumstances than now.''
Besides exploring a renewed US peace role and battening down the eventual sale of F-15s and other arms, King Fahd would like a US commitment to help avert a sudden decline in oil prices and access to the US market for Saudi Arabia's petrochemical products.