The latest round of talks between Egypt's President Anwar Sadat and Israel's Prime Minister Menachem Begin here last week can be regarded as the first Arab-Israeli summit in search of defense arrangement against Soviet ambitions in the Middle East.
The outcome, as could have been expected, is a far cry from even a starting point for a Middle Eastern NATO.
But Messrs. Begin and Sadat found that they were moved by identical appraisals. Both distrust the Soviet Union. Both would welcome a more vigorous American defense concept.Both are ready to give the United States substantial defense facilities, though not yet permanent bases. And both would favor some kind of a regional defense arrangement by Middle Eastern forces.
The identity of views stops at this point.
It doubtless was too early to expect joint operational plans to emerge from the Begin-Sadat summit. This would have been too short a time, even for former allies.
But a first step was made -- in the hope that it may infuse an element of sobriety into the Kremlin's thinking, encourage Washington to take more vigorous decisions, and stimulate interest in global strategy among leaders of the region.
The road from Aswan to a reasonably viable defense alignment promises to be long and arduous, however. Prior to Aswan, Mr. Begin hoped that events in Afghanistan and Iran would lead to a revision of political priorities in at least some Middle East capitals.
The Israeli concept envisaged a defense arrangement that would aim at roughly the following division of task: Most Arab states would contribute geography; Israel, Egypt, Jordan, and possibly some others, military forces; the United States, arms and technology; and all, the will to resist any future encroachment.
But President Sadat apparently dashed Mr. Begin's hopes. Egypt's strategic vision excludes Israel from any regional defense system -- at least as long as the Palestinian problem is not solved and peace with other Arab states concluded.
The United States is supporting Egypt's stand, pointing to Cairo's interests in the Arab and Muslim states. Israel's view, however, is that any regional security arrangement without Israel's active participation is likely to become a military and/or political liability to the US. It would have no teeth. It could collapse unexpectedly, as did Iran.
Or it could suddenly turn from an ally into an unpredictable Islamic force. Assuming that Israel does yield to Mr. Sadat's, and presumably Washington's, condition, and Mr. Begin agrees to solving the Palestinian problem the way the Arabs want it, the Soviet Union's gain would be almost automatic, according to the Israeli thesis.
For this would lead to a Palestinian Arab state, which, dominated by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), would be tied closely to the Soviet Union. Thus, Moscow would be enabled to leapfrog into the heart of western Palestine.
Mr. Sadat, too, distrusts the PLO. This is why he proposes to implement Palestinian autonomy first in the Gaza Strip, which was Egyptian territory from 1948 to 1967. He apparently believes that his men are better suited than the Israelis to break the PLO's effectiveness, and bring moderates to the fore.