This was the week the Western nations became uncomfortably aware of the fact that ``the Middle East problem'' is still with them. They had hoped that it had gone away or that it had been capped like some minor volcano and could be forgotten, or treated with ``benign neglect'' (a leftover from the days of United States Secretary of State Henry Kissinger), or at least its manifestations curbed in some respects by President Reagan's bombing of Libya.
None of it has worked. ``It'' is still there -- unsolved, festering, and explosive. Israel watches anxiously as Syrian military strength increases day by day. There are mutterings from Israel about a ``preventive war.'' Israelis say Syria is massing tanks for a blow at their positions on the Golan Heights. Is Israel looking for an excuse to strike first? Are the Syrians seriously thinking about trying to drive the Israelis off the Golan Heights?
These are only questions, anxieties. But they are highlighted by a jury conviction in London of an Arab with Syrian papers and Syrian Embassy connections, by London's subsequent break in diplomatic relations with Syria, and by the uneasy behavior of other Western governments -- none of which, including the US, matched London's lead. The US withdrew its ambassador and Canada withdrew its ambassador ``for consultation,'' but only the British broke diplomatic relations.
President Reagan long ago promised to strike back at ``state-supported terrorism'' whenever the source of the terrorism could be identified. Never before has the connection been so clearly established between an act of violence, or attempted violence, and the higher echelons of a government as in the case of Nezar Hindawi, who was convicted in London's Old Bailey on Oct. 24 of having tried to plant a bomb on an Israeli airliner.
Embassy connections have been identified in previous cases. But an embassy sometimes acts on its own. In the Libyan cases, connections were traced back to the capital, but there was no clear proof that the Libyan government at the top had ordered, authorized, planned, tolerated, or even known about the operations.
In the Hindawi case, responsibility was traced to the Syrian Embassy in London, and from the embassy to the Syrian foreign office in Damascus. That is going a long way to establish ``state-supported terrorism.''
President Hafez Assad of Syria denied any involvement, but the fact remains that he runs a tight government and that little is done by the various departments of that government that does not have, at the very least, his consent. The question left open is why he would have consented to, or perhaps even deliberately ordered, a terrorist operation that, whether successful or not, would shock and jolt the entire Western community.
A plausible explanation is that Mr. Assad deliberately took this occasion to remind Western governments that the Middle East's problems have not been resolved or swept under the rug. In a sense, it might have been a warning: ``Look out. There is going to be more trouble in the Middle East unless you do something solid about it.''
President Reagan was put under immediate pressure from the neo-conservative and pro-Israel people in his political constituency to take strong action and join Britain in isolating Syria. Daniel Pipes, prominent pro-Israel academic and publicist, writing in the New York Times Oct. 26, wanted Mr. Reagan to recognize ``that Syria is an enemy and must be dealt with accordingly.''
Mr. Pipes wants the President to proceed at once with a series of measures against Syria ranging from ``a ban on military and police equipment'' to ``a trade boycott.''
Mr. Assad gets his ``military and police equipment'' from Moscow and various Soviet clients in Eastern Europe. To isolate him from trade with the West would hardly be a hardship or a punishment. It would identify Syria as an ``enemy'' of the US. It would support Israel.
The Hindawi affair has jerked the attention of Western governments, and public opinion, back from post-Reykjavik ponderings to the Middle East. If that was the purpose, it has succeeded. The context is interesting.
The current year in Mideast affairs opened with Jordan's King Hussein breaking off ties with Yasser Arafat and his Palestine Liberation Organization. The King then proceeded down the road of a five-year program, with Western blessing and financial support, for economic development of the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
The Western capitals have watched with a pious hope that somehow down this road of easing relations between Jordan and Israel, and economic improvement in the lot of the Arabs on the West Bank, there might lie a gradual pacification of the Middle East.
But there is no Syrian connection down that road. And Syria is the central country in Arabia. People sometimes forget that the only truly Arab countries are those on the Arabian peninsula. Egypt speaks Arabic and calls itself Arab, but its people are of Nilotic origin. Ethnically, they are not Arabs. The people of Libya were originally Berbers, again a non-Arab ethnic group. The true Arab countries are Syria, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, Jordan, Lebanon, and the Palestinians.
The nearest thing there is to a political and cultural center in the Arab world is Damascus. In the truest sense, it is the capital of Arabia. It is in a state of avowed hostility with Israel. It has already given the Reagan administration hard evidence of its ability to block any proposed settlement in the Middle East that does not have Syria's participation and consent.
In 1982, Mr. Reagan sent Secretary of State George Shultz to Beirut and Jerusalem. He presided over talks between Israel and Lebanon. He gave his blessing to a deal that would have given Israel a preferred political and economic position in Lebanon. Syria scotched it.
Syria will accept no settlement in Israeli-Arab affairs that does not have Syrian consent. An act of violence was attempted by a person with Syrian papers and support. Washington has been put on notice that there will be no peace in the Middle East, no end to the Arab-Israeli conflict, and no end to Arabia's campaign of ``terrorism'' against Israel and Israel's supporters, unless or until there is a settlement acceptable to Syria. A side arrangement between Israel and Jordan will not work.