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Friends and enemies take each other's measure. Thatcher to gauge Reagan's strength as Soviets check out Mideast prospects

Two unusually interesting reconnaissance operations are being run this weekend. Britain's Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is in Washington to find out what remains of the Reagan administration's ability to govern after the ``Ollie'' North affair.

A consular-level Soviet delegation is in Jerusalem. It is the first time Soviet diplomats have been in Israel in 20 years. The Israelis had demanded a reciprocal trip to Moscow, but it was denied.

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But, first, back to Mrs. Thatcher and Washington.

The Reagan administration has 17 months left in office. What can it do during that time of importance, interest, and concern to Mrs. Thatcher, to her country, and to the rest of the world?

There is uncertainty. Indeed, there is even a slight question about whether Mr. Reagan himself will stay in office to the end of his allotted term. But the basic controlling factor about Reagan's tenure remains. No political element in Washington would benefit from his departure before the end of his term, except Vice-President George Bush. The other Republican hopefuls, of whom there are many, all want Mr. Reagan to remain to the end.

So do the Democrats, whose ammunition for the 1988 campaign has been prepared with the Reagan record as the target. If Mr. Reagan withdrew before the end, the Democrats' anti-Reagan ammunition would have to be scrapped. They need the known Mr. Reagan, not an unknown Mr. Bush in office as a target.

Assuming that Reagan does hold on to the end, of what use can he be to Mrs. Thatcher and the NATO allies in Europe?

Most likely, and most important, would be his conclusion of an arms control agreement with the Soviets.

The Reagan administration has every reason to want an agreement that would be signed at the White House in the midst of a news-spectacular visit by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. The visit would put Mr. Reagan back at center stage in Washington.

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But the negotiations are getting difficult for the simple reason that Soviet bargaining power is on the rise. The Soviets know Mr. Reagan wants and needs the news spectacular. But the Soviets do not need a Gorbachev visit to Washington, or the treaty now. They can go to Washington any time they like.

In recent days, the White House has complained that the Soviets are stalling on the terms of an arms agreement. Read that to mean that the Soviets have upped the price for the Gorbachev visit. Mrs. Thatcher can at least learn how much Mr. Reagan is likely to be willing to pay to get the visit.

Mrs. Thatcher is also interested in what will happen to the Nicaraguan contra rebels, who have never been favorites of hers.

In a week of highly dramatic testimony, watched on nationwide television as nothing has been so watched since the Watergate affair and the downfall of Richard Nixon, a young Marine lieutenant colonel named Oliver North did two quite different things.

First, he claimed that everything he did during the Iran-contra affair was done on authority of his immediate superior. After Colonel North, there came to the witness stand his last boss at the White House, Rear Adm. John Poindexter, who said that President Reagan had signed a finding that authorized the sale of arms to the Iranians and that the admiral later ``tore up.''

Meanwhile, Colonel North had made a powerful pitch for the contra case, so strong that public opinion polls that had until last week consistently showed a majority of Americans opposed to United States aid for the contras now show the country split about 50-50. Mr. Reagan may well be able to extract another 18 months of funding for the contras.

As for the Soviets in Israel, their foray could not have been more carefully crafted. The members of the delegation were ``consular,'' not ``diplomatic.'' They came ostensibly to survey Soviet property in Israel (that turns out to be the property of the Russian Orthodox Church), and to conduct ``consular business,'' which means opening a consulate and receiving Soviet citizens and talking to them about their personal problems.

This is a temporary mission. All questions as to whether it might lead to a resumption of normal diplomatic relations are pushed aside.

Needless to say this is part of a broad-front, diplomatic reentry by the Soviets into the Middle East. It seems to have begun nearly a year ago. An early move was to patch up relations between the quarreling factions of the Palestine Liberation Organization, which succeeded, after a fashion. It included peacemaking between Syria and the PLO, plus consolidation of military support for Syria.

In December, the Soviet diplomatic effort spread to Iran, where new ``economic cooperation'' agreements were signed, while keeping up a flow of weapons to Iran's enemy, Iraq.

And the Soviets agreed in April to a Kuwaiti request for the lease of three Soviet oil tankers. But at the same time, Moscow declared that it would not increase the number of its naval patrol vessels in the Gulf.

Washington hastened to try to counter this by offering to put the US flag on 11 Kuwaiti tankers, and increase substantially the number of US warships in the Gulf.

The Soviets are playing their hand softly. They take a short step toward reopening relations with Israel, but without sacrificing their major position as a friend of, and supplier of arms to, the Arabs. They are reentering the Gulf, but in a way that challenges US naval superiority.

This is extremely skillful use of diplomacy and military power. The Soviets are now in easy relations with all parties in the Middle East. They can talk with all. Much more of this and they would some day be what the US once was, i.e., the outside country in best position to play the broker between Israel and the Arabs.

The cautiousness of the Soviet reentry contrasts, sadly, with the blundering of the American role in the same part of the world.

Because of an editing error, the Pattern of Diplomacy column on July 17 stated that the Soviets ``are reentering the Gulf, but in a way that challenges US naval superiority.'' The sentence should have read: ``... but not in a way that challenges US naval superiority.''

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