WHEN Egyptian President Anwar Sadat made his dramatic overture to Israel 15 years ago, he not only condemned himself to death, he plunged his country into a decade of diplomatic isolation, ostracized by all its Arab neighbors.
Today, it is those Arab countries that are not making peace with Israel that are out of step. There are only three of them, and all are international outcasts: Sudan, Iraq, and Libya.
But however ready their governments may be to break free from old hostilities and work toward a new Middle East that includes Israel, when Arabs talk among themselves about Israelis, that is not the word they use. They say Yehudiin, the Jews, in a reluctance to acknowledge that the state of Israel exists.
The prime result in the Arab world of nearly three years of peace talks is confusion. Almost everywhere there is a pervasive sense that peace is now inevitable - that the process begun in Madrid in October 1991 has built up unstoppable momentum. But to many Arabs, both political leaders and men in the street, this is deeply unsettling.
``We have entered a situation of no exit, but it is taking us to unknown shores still shrouded in secrecy,'' worries Tahsin Bashir, a former Egyptian ambassador to the United Nations. ``It is good to get rid of war, but the question is, `For what?' ''
In some heads and hearts, Israel's repeated presence at negotiating tables opposite Arab officials has brought acceptance that the Jewish state is there. In Cairo, in Tunis, in Oman and Qatar, in Morocco, and now in Jordan, Israeli leaders and diplomats are scarcely even a novelty any more as they push one track or another of the peace process forward.
But even in the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), whose leaders have been in the most intense negotiations with Israel over Palestinian autonomy, that acceptance of Israel is still fragile.
Although the PLO recognized Israel last September, just before the handshake on the White House lawn by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, PLO Foreign Minister Farouk Kaddoumi was quoted earlier this month as saying on PLO radio, in reference to Israel, that ``there is a state which was established through historical force, and it must be destroyed. This is the Palestinian way.''
Not that Israel's destruction seems a realistic option for the Arab world. Of all the Arab armies that confronted the Jewish state in the 1948, `67, and `73 wars, only the Syrian and Lebanese forces are still in the field. Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinians have called an end to war, and Iraq is weakened beyond easy repair. Neither can Syria nor its protectorate, Lebanon, contemplate the prospect of war with any confidence, since the Soviet Union, once a source of arms, exists no more.
The belated recognition that the military game was up was one powerful argument that convinced the PLO to negotiate peace with Israel. Mr. Arafat's recognition of the Jewish state has cleared the way for the rest of the Arab world to take the same path with a clear conscience, no longer vulnerable to accusations of betraying the Palestinian cause or lingering notions of pan-Arabism.
The list of regional participants in multilateral negotiations with Israel, on issues such as arms control, water resources, economic development, and refugees, reads almost like a roll call of Arab League members. From the Persian Gulf to the Atlantic, Arab governments are anxious to carve their niches in the new regional order they see taking shape.
Syria and Lebanon balk at talks
Staying out of those talks, however, are Syria and Lebanon, reluctant to even nod in the direction of recognizing Israel until they win assurances that Israeli troops will pull out of their territory.
But even in Syria, one of Israel's most implacable and vociferous enemies, attitudes to the Jewish state are changing. When Mr. Rabin and Jordanian King Hussein ended the state of war between their countries at a Washington ceremony last month, Syrian television broadcast their speeches - a first.
Farther east, in the Gulf, the drop in support for the Palestinian cause has been precipitous since the PLO sympathized with Iraq against Kuwait during the Gulf crisis. And hostility toward Israel has fallen in proportion. ``The turning point in attitudes to Israel for the public in general was the Gulf war,'' says Mubarak al-Adwani, a Kuwaiti political commentator and former parliamentary candidate. ``The position that the PLO took was disappointing ... and the whole Palestinian issue became irrelevant'' to Kuwaitis.
In Saudi Arabia, similar attitudes prevail. ``There's an acceptance that Israel exists, and we have to coexist,'' says a leading businessman close to the Riyadh government. ``In three to five years, things will be quite normal.''
While the Saudis are happy to join in the multilateral peace talks, nobody expects them to normalize relations with Israel until Syria gives its blessing to such a move. And that will not come until Israel agrees to withdraw from the Golan Heights.
A resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict would not mean a great deal in practice to people in the Gulf where minds are more concentrated on Iraq and Iran than on Palestine. And among Israel's immediate neighbors, where the issue is of daily importance, ``the peace so far is government-to-government, not people-to- people,'' says Egypt's Ambassador Bashir.
For years, in ordinary Arabs' minds, ``Israel has been the constant and instant threat and enemy,'' explains Abdullah Abdel-Halek, a political-science teacher in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates. The peace process, he argues, has little changed that perception. ``Perhaps Israel is no longer the instant threat,'' he says, ``but for many Arabs it is still the constant problem, because it is still a militarily mighty power, occasionally an aggressive power, and because it continues to oppress the occupied territories.''
Reservations about Israel
If Israel seeks genuine acceptance among its Arab neighbors, argues Mustafa Hamarneh, a former adviser to King Hussein who now heads a think tank at the University of Jordan, ``they ought to accept once and for all their responsibility for the Palestinian problem.
``The Israelis won, there is no doubt about that,'' Mr. Hamarneh says. ``They will get peace treaties with everybody. But now the ball is in their court.... They should cease to behave like a hegemonic state and just be another state in the area.''
The United States is pressing Arab governments to push ahead regardless of such reservations. ``The US has made your relations with Israel the litmus test for Washington's relations with you,'' Bashir complains. ``There is nothing bilateral.''
But Israel's recent deal with Jordan, offering King Hussein a special role in administering Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem and thus infuriating the Palestinians and the Saudis, both of whom have their own aspirations in Jerusalem, ``casts a cloud of doubt as to whether Israel is trying to pit one Arab against another,'' Bashir says.
Where all this might lead is highly uncertain, not least because the Arab-Israeli conflict, though dominant, is by no means the only factor governing Middle Eastern affairs.
A previously heretical thought - that the Palestinian question might not be the only key to regional stability - is now widely expressed. ``There are other factors that make the region conflict-oriented,'' Dr. Abdel-Halek says: ``oil, the lack of democracy, problems of Arab unity, and of development. These are all issues that have not yet been fully addressed by governments.''
In the Gulf, the Palestinian issue seems distant. Of much more immediate concern are Iraq under Saddam Hussein and Iran's geopolitical ambitions; the current Middle East peace process has nothing to say about either of these questions.
And in the rest of the area, ordinary Arabs find it hard to get excited about a peace process that has brought no improvements to their difficult daily lives.
``The key is that the peace process is not finding jobs for millions of Arabs,'' Bashir says. ``The real enemy is how to feed, find jobs, and find an identity for the masses. Because if that doesn't happen, if hope is stifled, the area will go into more turmoil.''