The Reagan administration has weathered its most serious foreign policy crisis so far. It succeeded in toning down the tensions in the Middle East, which as recently as last weekend seemed likely to trigger a shooting war between Israel and Syria.
The danger is not entirely over. The Syrians may think they have more to gain than lose from a continuation of the crisis. An Israeli attack on Syrian forces would restore respectability in Arab eyes to Syria. Moscow also might prefer to keep up the strain. An Israeli attack on Arabs would give Moscow a chance to pose as the champion and protector of the Arabs against Israel.
But at time of writing the danger had been reduced for the time being. Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin said that Israel "won't start any war." This was a big step down from his previous position that Israel would take out by force the SAM-6 missiles Syria had deployed inside Lebanon unless Syria took them out voluntarily first. It was an ultimatum. But Mr. Begin backed down from it.
The backdown followed a letter to Mr. Begin from President Reagan and indications inside Israel that Mr. Begin's ultimatum was losing popular support. He had been applauded for threatening to take out the missiles. But when the crisis seemed to be pointing to war with Syria, Israeli public opinion began to soften.
We do not know the details of what the President in Washington said to the prime minister in Israel, but it would seem to have produced the result Washington desired -- avoidance of another Middle East war, which could have played havoc with Reagan administration plans for building an American military presence in the Arabian Peninsula in concert with the Arab countries.
Fortunately also for Washington, the break in the crisis came just as West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt was getting ready to fly to Washington for discussions about the future of the NATO alliance involving West German relations with Washington. One of the more important subjects on the agenda was US policy toward the Middle East. The West Germans, like the British and French , feel that the Reagan administration has been encouraging Israeli expansionism to the disadvantage of the interests of the allies.
If Washington had allowed its client and dependent, Israel, to attack the Syrians in Lebanon, the Schmidt visit might have turned out as badly as did the Japanese visit earlier in the month. The Japanese visit went well in Washington , but the fallout back in Japan did not.
Prime Minister Suzuki had promised "greater efforts for improving its defense capabilities in Japanese territories and in its surrounding sea and airspace." And he used the word "alliance" in the text of the communique. His foreign minister resigned in an ensuing political storm. Mr. Suzuki's own political position was damaged.
West German Chancellor Schmidt has every desire to work in friendly and cooperative partnership with the Reagan administration. But his government and his people favor more consideration for the Palestinians as a step toward a lasting solution to Middle East tension.
The European allies all favor a policy of "evenhandedness" between Israel and the Palestinians and between Israel and the other Arab countries. Allowing Mr. Begin to make war on Syria would not have improved relations between Washington and the NATO capitals in Europe. Mr. Begin cannot make war on Syria without Washington's consent.
Well, Mr. Begin did not get Washington's consent to attack the Syrian missiles. So there probably will not be a war between Israel and Syria in the immediate future. And Mr. Schmidt's visit will not be burdened by disagreement over Middle East policy. This cleared the way for easier discussions of perhaps the most important problem in the US-German relationship, the problem of deployment of new intermediate-range missiles in West Germany.
The West German chancellor wants them, but his political position in his own party would be damaged if he tried to go ahead with the missiles in the absence of the resumption of serious negotiations with the Soviets over the control of nuclear weapons both for Europe and in general.
President Reagan has already authorized Secretary of State Alexander Haig to open talks with Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin looking toward mutual restraint in deployment of theater nuclear weapons in Europe. Will this be sufficient for Mr. Schmidt's political needs? Or will he have to have something more in the form of a new beginning in the SALT II process?
The Israeli backdown on the Syrian missiles may now lead to a restoration of something of the old status quo in Lebanon. The understanding seems to be that the Israelis will continue to fly reconnaissance flights over some of, but not all of, Lebanon; that Syrian missiles will remain in place for the time being, perhaps to be withdrawn later if Syrian victory like that. Can Mr. Reagan keep it up? He has the next battle right ahead, the battle over a proposed big tax reduction. The stock and bond markets seem to have doubts about this. Will the proposed $30-billion tax cut, or some variant of it, halt or enhance inflation, which already is running about 10 percent? Nobody knows. All that anybody knows is that there will be more dramatic scenes ahead in a turbulent transtition in which one chapter of history h as just ended and a new one has just begun.