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Middle East chessboard: the game resumes

In world affairs over the past week the Reagan administration in Washington got itself into line with its West European allies on the subject of deploying the new mediumrange missiles on their territories. President Reagan agreed to open talks with the Soviets about those weapons before deploying them.

This closed a dangerous gap inside the NATO alliance because the West Europeans consider the opening of talks to be an essential preliminary to the deployment. The new cruise and Pershing II missiles will be acceptable on their land only if the possibility of negotiating a mutual exclusion of such weapons from Europe has first been exhausted.

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It was extremely fortunate that this issue which has been troubling allied relations was cleared away when it was because Washington finds itself plunged now into its first serious Reagan-era foreign policy crisis (over the Middle East). It will need all the help it can get from friends and allies to get out of this one without damage.

The crisis arises out of the fact that the Soviets have been given a golden opportunity to get back into the Middle East game as the champion of the Arabs against Israel.

The biggest single gain from President Carter's Camp David venture was precisely that it did push the Soviets out of a Middle East role. Camp David was the method by which Washington persuaded the Arabs that Washington could do more for them than Moscow could.

Washington persuaded the Israelis to give back Egypt's lost territories. Washington proposed continuing the process by persuading the Israelis eventually also to give up Gaza, the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and someday, perhaps, even the Golan Heights.

If the Arabs could get their lost territories back through Washington, why take guns from Moscow?

Suddenly, on April 28, all that changed. Israeli fighter planes shot down two Syrian helicopters. The Syrians responded by bringing in batteries of Soviet SAM-6 and SAM-2 missiles. The Israelis responded by threatening to attack the missiles unless they were removed. Washington itself took the next step, asking Anatoly Dobrynin, Moscow's ambassador in Washington, to ask his government to try to persuade the Syrians to withdraw the missiles.

That very act of going to the Soviet ambassador in Washington played into Soviet hands. It gave back to them at least part of their lost role in the Middle East. They were in the game. They could ask a favor in return for a favor.

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If the damage can be stopped there, it will be enough. But can it?

Prime Minister Menachem Begin got roaring approval at home for having shot down those two Syrian helicopters. He won more applause for threatening to take out the Syrian missiles by force. If he does, it may well mean a real war in Lebanon between Syrian and Israeli forces. The Israelis use American weapons. The Syrians are bound to turn to Moscow for more guns and more help, particularly if they are being hurt badly in the fighting.

The net of it is that Mr. Begin has further undermined what little remained of the Camp David peace process. Mr. Begin never liked it. Because it pointed to eventual Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories, he entered it only reluctantly.

Mr. Reagan also had a hand in bringing about this crisis. He had said that Israeli settlements in the occupied territories were "not illegal." His foreign policy adviser, Richard Allen, said that Israeli military operations in Lebanon were "justified" under the doctrine of "hot pursuit."

Mr. Begin had reason to think that he had a "green light" from Washington to take offensive military action inside Lebanon. That action was built up gradually throughout March and april, with no protest from Washington.

The fatal sequence of events began with Israeli support for the Lebanese Phalangist militia forces operating north of Beirut. Israeli aid was funneled to those "Christian" forces through the port of Juniye.

With extra aid and support the Phalangists pushed down from the ridge of the Lebanon range of mountains toward the valley beyond. They moved into the substantial town of Zahle. The Syrian military position in the Bekaa Valley was threatened. They counterattacked. Israel shot down the two helicopters. The Syrians moved in the Soviet missiles.

President Reagan in Washington is trying to keep his hand on the course of his economic program through the Congress. To him it has first priority, as it should. But in part the new crisis happened because Washington had its attention focused at home. Foreign policy sometimes becomes insistent and can no longer be neglected. Mr. Reagan is going to have to spend time now on Middle East damage control.

Unless controlled, damage could turn into disaster. If there is real and continuing war between Israel and Syria over Lebanon, other Arab countries are likely to become involved. No matter how much the Egyptian government values its own peace treaty with Israel, it might well be forced by public sympathy for Syria into repudiating the peace and getting into the war. Syria has been promised help from fellow Arabs including the oil fiefdoms of Saudi Arabia and Libya.

How can Washington head off such dangers?

Only by reapplying the restraints on israel that President Reagan has abandoned, or by negotiating with Syria through Moscow. Either course is unattractive. To put back the restraints on Israel would mean another political battle with the pro-Israel lobby in Washington. It has just succeeded in delaying the AWACS sale to Saudi Arabia. It could give Mr. Reagan a battle royal over reimposed restraints on Israel. There is no certainly the President could win.

It is difficult to reimpose such restraints once they are lifted. But the price of negotiating through Moscow would also come high.

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