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What Sadat's assassination means to America

Events such as the assassination of Anwar Sadat raise a number of questions. What does such a thing really mean? What are its implications for US policy in the Middle East? As we assess the future, what unanswered question appears to loom the largest? All these are separate issues. Yet, they are all part of the same circumstance.

Unlike the recent attempt against the life of President Reagan, the killing of Mr. Sadat was not the meaningless act of a possibly deranged young man who wanted to impress (so we are told) a lady freshman at Yale. The assassins were men who had political motives for which they were prepared to die.

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Few in the United States really grasp the sense of betrayal experienced by many Arabs (including some Egyptians) over Sadat's visit to Jerusalem, over Camp David, and over the Egyptian-Israeli treaty. Americans like to set the Egyptians apart by contending that they are only "Arabized," not a truly Arab people. But this doesn't matter. In their hearts, many are Arab and this consciousness goes far deeper and is longer standing than the themes of Gamal Abdel Nasser's Arab unity. It is too easy just to dismiss the assassins as extremists -- fanatics. Unless we are prepared to accept that the sense of betrayal strikes at the very identity of many Egyptians, we cannot understand what happened on the reviewing stand at Nasser City on Oct. 6.

The US should accept the notion of Arab nationalism insofar as everything in the region appears to be related to everything else. What happens in Egypt influences American fortunes throughout the entire Arab world. Mr. Sadat understood this. That is the reason he insisted on negotiating with Israel over the West Bank and Palestinian autonomy even though as an Egyptian he might have washed his hands of the entire affair after a peace treaty that promised the return of Sinai. It was because Mr. Sadat and his assassins were Arabs, and not just Egyptians, that Egypt's leader lost his life.

The implications of Sadat's death for US Middle East policy will be with us quite soon. Since Mr. Reagan entered office, the best that can be said for America's approach to the Arabs is that it has been casual. During Prime Minister Begin's recent visit to the White House, President Reagan didn't even raise the questions of the Israeli settlements on the West Bank or the raid on Iraq -- or so Mr. Begin claims. The Israelis have good reason to be assured by the success of what Arabs see as Israel's "stonewalling" tactics. After all, it was Mr. Sadat who always maintained that the United States holds 99 percent of the cards in any game of Middle East peace.

The present circumstances in the Middle East are tolerable for the United States in terms of the conditions of oil supply, regional security, and Israel's well-being. The US has no reason to press for a Middle East peace unless it is compelled. To do so would involve a lot of domestic political discomfort for Mr. Reagan. But a great deal of America's sense of assurance depended on Mr. Sadat, and he is gone. It now seems necessary for Mr. Reagan to approach the Arab-Israeli problem with a modicum of urgency if he hopes to preclude even worse catastrophes than Mr. Sadat's assassination. One thing the "Middle East" abhors (if we can talk about a region as if it has a personality) is being ignored.

And then there is the third piece in the puzzle -- what is the unanswered question that we would like to have answered? It has to do with the intentions of Mr. Sadat's likely successor, Hosni Mubarak. American officials know him well. This gentleman has had a lot of exposure in the United States. But does official Washington really know what he thinks about the important issues of peace with Israel and an American-orchestrated "strategic consensus?" Apparently , it does not. In fact, Mr. Mubarak is an enigma. His very continuance in office under Sadat depended upon his being exactly that. Remaining somewhat of a mystery man in the months ahead will still be vital to Mubarak's success.

And if the Israelis seize upon suspicion of Mubarak to delay withdrawal from the final third of Sinai, where does that leave the United States? The US is a very large part of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, which was spawned by the arduous and sometimes questionable efforts of Mr. Carter at Camp David and by Henry Kissinger before him. The other Arabs may have opposed the entire process , but for the US to let it falter now would cause it to be viewed as not being serious, not even about its own interests. It would be set back a generation in its relations with the Arabs. t is not hostile to suggest that Mr. Sadat might have gone too far in his embrace of the American relationship. Many of his closest advisers hold this view. The US, of course, saw it as a manifestation of Sadat as a man of "vision." The future relations between the US and Egypt will require more skill and subtlety on Washington's part and more balance by Egypt under Mubarak than has prevailed in the recent past.

And the lessons for us in all of this? The Arabs are a political system. They must be considered as one. The problem which they constitute for us (and we for them) cannot be allowed to drift.m

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