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The Middle East again

Some volcanoes, unlike Mt. St. Helens, give warning before they blow. The Middle East is like that right now.

Israel has stepped up its aerial reconaissance over Lebanon. Syrian anti-aircraft batteries have been firing back. Israeli maneuvers are reported both in southern Lebanon and on the Golan Heights. Syria has turned to Moscow for weapons to fill up its arsenals.

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United States Secretary of State Alexander Haig made a hurried trip to the area. The official reason was to try to push along negotiations between Israel and Egypt over political autonomy for the Palestinians of the occupied territories. The actual reason was probably to try to head off any new breach of the truce between Israel and its northern Arab neighbors.

That truce has been more or less observed for nearly a year now, but a heavy strain was put on it when the Israelis announced on Dec. 14 that they were applying Israeli law to the Golan Heights. Ever since the atmosphere has been charged with new tension. It is as though everyone involved has been sharpening swords, buckling on armor, and preparing for battle.

The immediate question is whether the volcano will blow before or after April 25.

April 25 is the day on which Israeli armed forces are required by the terms of the Camp David agreement to withdraw from the last slice of the Sinai Peninsula.

There is mounting pressure on the government of Israel from Israeli settlers in the last Sinai strip to back away from the agreement. A group has even come to the US to lobby against final withdrawal. Any military event along either the Syrian or Lebanese frontier of Israel might become a trigger for blowing that part of Camp David out of the Middle East. Arabs suspect that Israel is thinking of setting off the event for that very purpose.

But Egypt is being extremely careful to avoid triggering any trouble about the withdrawal. Negotiations are virtually complete over detail. The only point of continuing disagreement is over the terms for Palestinian autonomy in the remaining occupied territories after the withdrawal.

The issue there is by now clear.

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Ever since Menachem Begin became Prime Minister of Israel there has been a steady process of planting new Jewish settlements in the occupied territories. President Carter thought he had an agreement at Camp David that this process would be suspended pending conclusion of the Egypt-Israel negotiations over Palestinian autonomy. They were never suspended. If anything, they were pushed faster than ever.

By this time the Israelis hold roughly one-fourth of the total territory on the West Bank and Jewish settlements are placed so strategically that they virtually surround the major centers of Arab population.

Israel is asking that Egypt agree that the Arabs of the West Bank be given, in effect, control only over such things as local sanitation. After that Israel would declare its sovereignty over the entire area . There is no secret about the intentions of the Begin government. It intends to annex the West Bank and Gaza as it has already annexed East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights.

But such assertion of Israel sovereignty over the occupied territories would violate both the terms and the intent of United Nations Resolution 242 which was the basis for Camp David. It would be contrary to the official position of the US government ever since the 1967 war. It would be unacceptable to any Arab country and to the vast majority of the countries of the world - including all of Europe both Western and Eastern. It would immediately boost Soviet influence throughout the Middle East.

The result is a world watching Washington to see what it will do about Israel's intentions.

Is the government of the US going to stand on the sidelines and allow its client, Israel, to take a step which will lead to another Middle East war and give Moscow the chance to pose once more as the champion of the Arabs against Israel?

Or is it going to stand up to the Begin government decisively and say firmly, once and for all, ''No'' - and then face an enormous political row at home?

This is one of those problems in world affairs which will not go away and which is coming down the road like a freight train on schedule. April 25 is the crucial date. Either Washington says its ''No'' to Mr. Begin by then, or the Middle East reverts to a pre-Camp David situation with Moscow coming back in on the Arab side.

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