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Lebanese fighting underlines Mideast power struggle

The main protagonists in the Middle East are staking out their positions against any shift in American policy under President Reagan. This tendency has been intensified by Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr.'s visit to the area this past week.

The smoke of battle hanging over Lebanon is perhaps the most visible sign of the current angling for advantage going on in the whole area from Egypt and Israel to Jordan and Saudi Arabia --the four Mideastern countries visited by Mr. Haig.

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It is true that no new United States initiative in the Middle East is likely before the Israeli elections at the end of June. But the Haig visit to the Middle East has been the first scouting mission by a top US official. It is likely to be influential in the formulation of the Reagan administration's long-term policy and strategy in the area.

In oversimplified terms, the basic question asked by the governments in the area is: Will the tilt of the new administration in Washington end up significantly different from that of the Carter administration toward Israelis on the one hand and Arabs on the other?

The Carter approach was deemed by its practitoners evenhanded. But most Israelis saw it as potentially more pro-Arab than US policy under the Nixon and Ford presidencies. Many Arabs had the same perception. And during the presidential campaign last fall, the rhetoric of the Reagan camp suggested that with Ronald Reagan in the White House, US policy would swing back from the Carter position toward closer identification with Israel.

In particular, the Reagan insistence that he Palestinian issue must be subordinated to the overall Soviet threat to Southwest Asia pleased Israel and its supporters in the US.

Now, however, there is growing questioning among Israelis about the effect of this policy on Israel's once-exclusive primary role as an informal ally of the US in the Middle East.

Hot on the heels of the new administration's decision to supply Saudi Arabia with equipment for its US-built F-15 jet fighters denied the Saudis by the Carter administration comes confirmation that Secretary Haig discussed with the Saudi government in Riyadh April 7 the eventual meeting of a Saudi request to buy US AWACS aircraft.

AWACS stands for "airborne warning and control system" -- an electronic monitoring system of great range that makes it possible to watch aircraft activity far beyond the border of any country operating planes equipped with it.

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Since the outbreak of the Iraq-Iran war last fall, the US has had, at Saudi request, four AWACS planes operating from bases in Saudi Arabia. In Israeli eyes, supplying AWACS aircraft for the Saudis to operate themselves is a very different (and potentially dangerous) US tack.

The Saudis, in addition to discussing AWACS planes with Secretary Haig, also reiterated vigorously that there must be early moves toward a resolution of the Palestinian problem.

For the Israelis, the never-distant nightmare in their thinking is the possibility of being abandoned and isolated and left alone (as they see it) to face the threat of extermination by surrounding hostile Arab foes. The reflex Israeli response is to dig in as hard as possible against the threat. This helps explain the upswing in recent days of military activity across the Lebanese border both by Israelis themselves and by the Israeli-backed Lebanese Christian forces of the maverick Maj. Saad Haddad just north of the Israeli frontier.

The resulting climate stirs in turn the fears and suspicions of Syria, which maintains a deterrent force under Arab League auspices in Lebanon, Syrian leader Hafez Assad realizes that political strains within Syria, the "trapping" of the deterrent force in Lebanon, and his isolation in the Arab world make him vulnerable.

President Assad may well be wondering whether the Israelis will choose the present uncertain hiatus either to strike a blow against him or to implement a long-term Israeli dream of dismembering Lebanon by encouraging the establishment of a separate Lebanese Christian state.

The dominant Christian forces in Lebanon today -- Bashir Gemayel's Falangists as well as fading veteran former President Camille Chamoun -- have separatist tendencies, even if less extravagant than those of Major Haddad. They are all anti-Palestinian, anti-Syrian, and potentially pro-Israeli.

Israeli Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir said April 5 that Israel would not "sit idly by" while Syrians killed Christians in Lebanon. This will only have deepend Mr. Assad's suspicions and justified (in Syrian eyes) the Syrian military ac tion in the Zahle area of Lebanon, a Christian stronghold.

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