THE United States is floating ideas with its Arab allies on the future of Middle East security that would significantly strengthen Washington's strategic position in the region. Arab and European diplomats point out, however, that the durability of any new Arab-US security arrangements depends largely on three factors: a US commitment to regional economic development; a regional agreement to remove weapons of mass destruction from Israel and Iraq; and above all, a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem, an issue brought to the fore by the shooting deaths last week of 21 Palestinians in Jerusalem.
Diplomatic sources say that Washington's ideas include a promise to come to the aid of Arab allies under attack. According to one Western European diplomat, the US would sell arms to its Arab allies and would preposition military equipment in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Also, the Egyptians would station troops in Persian Gulf countries that feel threatened.
State Department officials so far have declined to elaborate on the issue of Middle East security arrangements. But one administration official conceded that Secretary of State James Baker III has ``been getting commitments from [Arab] governments that we ought to look at the future'' of such arrangements.
Iraq's invasion of Kuwait last August and the subsequent response of Arab nations have galvanized changes taking place in Arab societies. Countries are switching alliances. Regional pressure points are changing. Regimes face domestic challenges.
Already, the changes have been remarkable. Syria, once considered by the West to be hard-line, is now viewed as moderate and has allied itself with former rival Egypt. Jordan, once close to Egypt and Saudi Arabia, has moved toward Iraq and relations with Riyadh are close to the breaking point.
Even if Iraq withdraws from Kuwait, says a senior US official, ``you could still have Saddam sitting'' in Baghdad.
``There will be informal, bilateral arrangements,'' says the western European diplomat. ``It boils down to American weapons and Egyptian manpower. The Egyptians will be the police in the Gulf monarchies.''
The emerging US ideas appear to reflect a retreat from Secretary Baker's statements before a congressional committee in early September. Baker said then that the US was aiming for a Middle East version of NATO for the post-crisis period. Officials familiar with the region say this would be unworkable given enduring Arab suspicions of the West.
One country crucial to the US is Jordan. The West perceives King Hussein as tilting toward Iraq - the result of pro-Saddam sentiment in the country's mostly Palestinian population. But King Hussein could have had another reason for failing to align with Saudi Arabia and the West: The King is said to believe that Saudi Arabia incited Bedouin tribes in southern Jordan during the 1989 riots against price hikes, experts say.
Rashid Khalidi, associate director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Chicago, says the rivalry between the Hashemites, now ruling Jordan, and the Wahabis, the ancestors of the Saudi ruling family, goes back to the 18th century when the Wahabis overran Mecca, the holiest of Islamic sites.
In recent times, Saudi and Jordanian rulers had found a common interest in countering the threat from Iran.
Now, say Western diplomats, Syria, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia will twist King Hussein's arm to make sure the Hashemite Kingdom rejoins the moderate, pro-Western camp.
And Israel, alarmed by the pro-Iraq sentiment among Jordanians, will abandon any notion that Jordan is Palestine.
``As long as Saddam is in power in Iraq,'' says an Arab diplomat, ``Israel will want Jordan as a buffer state. [Ariel] Sharon's idea of Jordan as the Palestinian state is dead.''
But the major change will surely be a grouping of Arab states allied with the US. Until now, only Bahrain and Israel have welcomed a significant US military presence. Washington stresses the importance of military pre-positioning in the region in order to avoid costly and time-consuming large-scale mobilization.
Pre-positioning in Saudi Arabia would constitute a major breakthrough for the US on the Arabian peninsula.