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Mideast: time to listen

It is easy to be transfixed by the personal tensions that have arisen in Washington as the Reagan presidency settles the chain of command within the executive branch and other organizational matters. These have their importance, to be sure. But it is time to get on with the substance of foreign policy, and here there is a great deal of work to do. Secretary of State Haig's impending trip to the Middle East will be crucial to sounding out opinion in the region and laying the ground for US policymaking in a key area of the world.

President Reagan has already begun to move in certain directions in the Middle East which have pleased some quarters but concerned others. He wants, for instance, to build up a strong US military presence in the Gulf region, with American bases and access facilities. He sees the Soviet threat there as central to the problem of instability and conflict. In line with his strong sympathies for and support of Israel, he has said that the new Israeli settlements in the disputed West Bank are not "illegal," thereby reversing long-stated US policy. He seems to believe that, if the Soviet challenge can be met head-on, other conflicts, including the Arab-Israeli dispute, will fall into place and become manageable.

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Whether this approach is a valid one is open to question. Western diplomats of long experience in the Middle East believe Mr. Reagan risks overestimating the Soviet threat. They see the Soviet Union as ever looking for opportunities to exploit to its advantage, but they rate its policy in the area as more clumsy than deft. Even the Russian incursion into Afghanistan is interpreted as an act of desperation in the face of the turmoil in Iran, possible US intervention, and the weakness of the Marxist regime in Kabul. The US, this analysis goes, must be on its guard but the situation is not cause for alarm.

Washington's need at the moment is to be alert to what the nations of the area themselves think. This in fact is what former high-ranking US diplomat Harold Saunders, who has been so intimately involved in Mideast negotiations, cautions in his analysis on the Opinion and Commentary page today. The outlook from Egypt, from Israel, from Saudi Arabia may be, and often is, quite different from that of the United States, and American policy cannot succeed if these views are not harmonized. As Mr. Saunders writes, "Arab cooperation with the US in blunting the Soviet strategic threat will depend on US cooperation with Arabs in meeting the security threat as they see itm -- and in reducing causes of instability."

In moderate Arab eyes, the cause of instability in the area is less Soviet ambitions than the unresolved Arab-Israeli dispute. The argument is compelling. Until this bitter 30-year-old conflict is resolved, it will continue to provide fertile soil for repeated armed conflict, political turmoil -- and Soviet adventurism. The Arab-Israeli confrontation may not be the only source of instability in the Middle East, but it looms as the most critical one.Therefore a military approach to problems in the Middle East will be ineffectual if unaccompanied by parallel efforts to achieve a negotiated settlement in the remaining disputed territories -- the West Bank, the Gaza strip, and the Golan Heights.

Secretary Haig, while he has tended to emphasize the geopolitical East-West equation in foreign policy, nonetheless understands this, and he no doubt is searching for ways and means of furthering the peace process launched at Camp David but now in a state of suspension. An immediate concern -- in order to keep that process alive -- is to resolve the issue of providing a multilateral peace-keeping force in Sinai as called for by the Egyptian-Israeli treaty. Reports from Washington indicate the President may ask for special legislation permitting the stationing of some 1,000 American troops there to help police the Israeli withdrawal in 1982.

The idea is bound to spark lively debate, for injecting US soldiers into an explosive part of the world would have its obvious dangers. We share the concerns raised about such a move, but it cannot be overlooked that the US bears responsibility under the treaty for guaranteeing the peace between Israel and Egypt. A limited US presence, as long as it is part of a multinational force (and even that would be more symbolic than operational), may have to be the price paid for preserving the peace agreement.

Beyond that matter, however, lies the urgent question of how to get the diplomatic ball rolling once Israel has had its elections and once the US and its Western allies know where they are going. New and creative ideas are needed -- on this as on other issues in the Middle East. It is to be expected that Mr. Haig will do as much listening as talking on his tour of the region.

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