SINCE the days of Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Middle East has been a key arena for superpower conflict. But when Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and United States President Bush sit down today in Moscow for summit talks, they will find themselves in a rare degree of unanimity on Middle East issues.Both countries are poised to try to use the summit - and their shared stance - to push the Arab-Israeli peace process to a new and crucial stage. Soviet commentators are unusually lavish these days in their praise of US policy in the Middle East and of US Secretary of State James Baker III's efforts to bring about direct Arab-Israeli talks including Palestinian Arabs. "For the first time, there are favorable prerequisites for a peaceful settlement," wrote Lt. Col. R. Mustafin in the Soviet Army daily Red Star on July 26. Colonel Mustafin, who is the leading Soviet military commentator on the Middle East, credits the US for this change, pointing particularly to American readiness to press Israel.
Common stance on Israel "The US stand has ... become more firm and resolute - and I dare say, more principled - as regards Israel," Mustafin said. The Soviet military daily has dropped complaints, frequently voiced during the Gulf war, that the US is seeking to oust the Soviet Union from the region. Instead, "Washington is not only stretching out its hand toward Moscow but also views us as equal partners," the Red Star analyst wrote. "Soviet-American cooperation, tested during the time of the Iraq-Kuwait conflict, has become th e main cause of success and progress in reaching a [peace] settlement," he said. This mood is also evident when it comes to Iraq. Though Soviet officials caution against a resumption of the use of force against Iraq to enforce United Nations resolutions, they say there is no divergence with the US on firm opposition to any Iraqi nuclear-weapons program. Soviet and US officials have expressed the hope that the Moscow summit will produce an invitation to Middle East leaders to attend a peace conference cosponsored by the two powers. The US has pressed Israel to respond to its plan for the conference before the summit, although that now appears unlikely. Even if a conference invitation is stalled, Soviet Middle East experts expect the summiteers to discuss the details of its preparation, its schedule, future stages and joint diplomatic efforts to get it un derway. "A joint Soviet-American role in the first stage of the diplomatic process will be very important, but mainly in launching the process," says Vitaly Naumkin, Soviet specialist and deputy director of the influential Institute of Oriental Studies. He cautions against the belief that the superpowers can ultimately determine a settlement after that point. Mr. Naumkin foresees considerable difficulties ahead, particularly on the thorny issue of how the Palestinians will be represented at the conference. Israel objects to the presence of any Palestinians from East Jerusalem, fearing this would call into question Israeli sovereignty over the whole of the city. Some solution must be found that avoids dealing with the Jerusalem problem at the first stage, he believes.
Soviets have key ties Though its role is diminished from cold-war days, the Soviet Union retains a particularly close relationship to two key Arab participants - Syria, whom Moscow has armed for decades, and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), whose guerrillas have also been armed and trained by Moscow. After reaching a unified US-Soviet position, "the Soviet Union will be able to use its influence on the Palestinians to launch the process," Naumkin suggests. Soviet policy towards Israel has also moved rapidly in recent years from hostility to the widening of official ties, but not yet to full-scale diplomatic relations. Only last week, for example, Israeli Agriculture Minister Rafael Eitan, the former Israeli Army chief of staff, completed a visit here for talks on agricultural cooperation. There are even links between Israel and Soviet Muslim republics such as Azerbaijan and Kirghizia. "There is a very active rapprochement between the Soviet Union and Israel and Jewish economic and financial circles in the West," Naumkin says. "It has become a kind of fashion in the Soviet Union."