Israel is the big winner from two weeks of violence and drama in the Mideast. It now enjoys an unprecedented degree of American support for its policies and purposes, while the United States has damaged its relations with Arab countries, particularly Egypt.
To the astonishment of the whole world, including Israel, President Reagan had called the Israeli bombing raid on Palestine Liberation Organization headquarters in Tunisia on Oct. 1 ``a legitimate response'' to ``terrorist attack.'' Then, to the astonishment of the Arab world, Mr. Reagan used US naval jets to prevent an Egyptian plane from delivering to the PLO the Palestinian hijackers of the Italian cruise liner Achille Lauro.
To Reagan and Israel, this was the apprehension of criminals in order to bring them to justice. To Arabs, it was an act of piracy in international airways which denied PLO leader Yasser Arafat a chance to prove his responsibility by trying the hijackers and, if guilty, punishing them.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was reported to have been so angered by the US action that for two days he refused even to read a letter Reagan sent him. Instead, he demanded an apology for the interception -- an apology that Reagan has publicly refused even to consider.
Tunisia, one of the most moderate of Arab states, officially declared its ``profound regret and great astonishment'' over Reagan's acceptance of the Israeli attack inside Tunisia. King Hassan II of Morocco, the most conservative and pro-Western of all Arab states, canceled a visit to Washington on the ground that talks with Reagan are now impossible.
Perhaps the most intriguing incident in the two weeks was Reagan's initial off-the-cuff reaction to the news that the hijackers were on their way to Tunisia to be tried by the PLO. The President first said he thought it would be a good thing to have the PLO try to punish the hijackers.
History will never know what could have happened had Reagan acted on his first impulse. Mr. Arafat declared that the hijackers were not members of his organization, that they were lawbreakers, and that he would take custody of them, try them, and if found guilty, punish them.
Would he have done so? The story would be different had Arafat tried, convicted, and punished the hijackers -- implausible, but conceivable. In that event the way may still be open for progress under the peace initiative stitched together by Jordan's King Hussein.
President Mubarak of Egypt had intended to play the hand that way. He sent a government plane with the hijackers aboard to Tunisia. He had promised the hijackers safe passage out of the area in return for the release of the surviving hostages (one had been killed) and the ship. He felt a moral obligation to the hijackers.
The hijackers were removed from the Egyptian plane by force, then held by Italy, which will try them. The seizure and the act of trying them in a Western court implies that Arafat would not have convicted or punished them.
Israel contends the hijacking was just another act of PLO terrorism; that the hijackers were acting on Arafat's orders; and that the whole affair proves that the US should stop trying to persuade Israel to allow PLO representatives to join in peace talks.
The Hussein initiative is probably now ruined. Israel will have nothing to do with the PLO; and Washington has, by implication, associated itself with the Israeli contention that the PLO is hopelessly tarnished and disqualified.
Also, the hijacking has apparently been too much for Jordan. King Hussein has disassociated himself from Arafat by accepting Britain's reasons for canceling a scheduled meeting in London with two of Arafat's lieutenants.
All of this seems to rule out any chance for substantive peace talks unless or until the Palestinians can either rehabilitate their organization and their leader -- or find new ones. Sooner or later that must happen. Only the Palestinians can give Israel that title to Israel's lands which would end the cycle of Arab-Israeli wars. Only Palestinian consent would satisfy the Arab community.
Events have moved far since the days when the US pursued a policy of ``evenhandedness'' between Arabs and Israel. In 1957 the US even forced Israel to withdraw from the Sinai on pain of stopping the flow of contributions from the US to Israel.
In 1967 the US was a co-sponsor of UN Resolution 242, which called for Israel to give up ``occupied territories'' in return for recognition of Israel's right to exist. Ever since, the US has continued to support that resolution.
Not much is left of the evenhanded policy. Israel won't deal with the PLO; the Arabs insist the PLO is the spokesman for the Palestinians. This prevents serious movement toward peace under 242. The US then continues to support Israel's economy and armed forces, enabling Israel to retain the occupied territories without making peace.
Perhaps the most serious aspect of the whole affair is the rift between the US and Egypt. Unless this can be repaired it is not beyond possibility that Egypt might pull away from its Western association and for a second time turn to Moscow for support.