Maneuvering for a seat at the peace table
That vote in the United States Senate which cleared the way for the American AWACS surveillance planes to go to Saudi Arabia has acted on the world diplomatic community like a signal to begin a new game.
Everyone had been waiting to find out how that Oct. 28 vote would go. Once that was settled, attention focused on the next round of Arab-Israel negotiations.
Technically, the negotiations have already started between Egypt and Israel over the kind of local self-rule which will be allowed to the Arab inhabitants of the territories occupied by Israel since the 1967 war.
In larger fact, there is a broader negotiation involving all countries with a major interest in the future of the Middle East. The range of that negotiation is suggested by the fact that the Japanese have given verbal support to the opening position of the Arab moderates.
The Arab position is phrased in a plan put forward in August by Saudi Arabia. It calls for Israeli withdrawal from ''all occupied territories'' to be followed by the setting up of a Palestinian state on the West Bank with its capital in East Jerusalem.
The West Europeans moved into the new game on this past week when Britain's Foreign Secretary, Lord Carrington, acting on behalf of the European Community, arrived in Saudi Arabia for talks there with the Saudis. Lord Carrington had preceded his take-off for Arabia by speaking in London about the desirability of including the Palestine Liberation Organization in the negotiations. The EC countries have a ''plan'' of their own that is similar to the Saudi plan.
The Soviets were more than fascinated spectators. They had reopened diplomatic contact with the Israelis at the United Nations on Sept. 24. Their respective foreign ministers met and talked on that day. That talk punctuated a six-year break in those relations.
Then last week the Soviets denounced the Camp David process (which Israel much favors) and gave their blessing to the Saudi ''plan.'' They also want the talks taken out of the three-cornered (US-Egypt-Israel) Camp David formula and put into a larger and general conference.
The US is a major player in the new game - and also is a target for other peoples' diplomatic efforts. West Europeans, Japanese, and Arabs are doing what they can to persuade Washington to use its influence with Israel in favor of terms which, in the end, would restore the boundaries of Palestine as they were before the 1967 war. Israel's opening position is maximum hard line. Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin declared Nov. 3 that Israel would insist on keeping all of the occupied territories. That means the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza, and the Golan Heights.
Mr. Begin also tried to bolster his hand by contending that United States President Reagan had harmed Israel by winning from the Senate the ability to sell modern US weapons, including AWACS, to the Saudis. By implication, Washington should back his demands for keeping the occupied territories as compensation for the damage allegedly to be done to Israel by selling modern weapons to the Saudis.
President Reagan has tried to head off the impact of the Begin argument by promising that the US will do whatever is necessary to maintain Israel's ''quantitative and qualitative military superiority'' over the Arabs. Congress was working on a bill to support this promise by providing funds to put 1,200 US troops into Palestine to police the boundary between Israel and Egypt.
The White House and State Department both offended Mr. Begin by expressing interest in the Saudi plan on the ground that its implicit (not explicit) provision for recognition of Israel was ''encouraging'' and ''is a beginning point for negotiation.''
Israel is required by United Nations Security Council Resolution 242 to withdraw its troops from ''occupied territories.'' It is also required by the Camp David agreement to ''provide full autonomy to the inhabitants'' of the West Bank and Gaza. Camp David further provided that as soon as the Arabs have set up a ''freely elected'' and ''self-governing authority'' Israel will withdraw its occupying troops to positions to be agreed upon for Israel's security.
The Camp David formula is based on the UN 242 formula. But during the Camp David process, when Israel was negotiating with Egypt under the umbrella of US presence, the Camp David formula seemed to grow increasingly tolerant of Israel's expansionism. Mr. Begin seems to assume that so long as the negotiating process is under ''Camp David'' he will be able to retain effective control over the occupied territories.
But if Camp David is abandoned in favor of a new framework for the negotiations, the Arabs will undoubtedly come out better off. In a general conference the West Europeans, Japan, the other Arabs, and the Soviet Union will all be pushing for the maximum implementation of UN Resolution 242, meaning maximum independence for the Arabs of the occupied territories with maximum land.
The Israelis were disturbed when President Reagan spoke approvingly of the Saudi plan because the net effect of that plan would be to move the talks into a broader framework where Israel could count only on the US for support. Meanwhile , the degree of that support has been brought into question by the decision to sell American weapons to the Saudis over the strongest possible Israeli opposition.
Crown Prince Fahd of Saudi Arabia began campaigning for his plan over the past week, and also for transfer of the talks to a wider conference on the ground that Camp David ''is at a dead end.
''There is a new edge of tension about the talks for two reasons. First, there is a deadline for decision on the degree of self-government which the West Bank and Gaza Arabs are to have. These talks are tied in with the requirement of Camp David that Israel must complete its withdrawal from the Sinai peninsula by April 1982. Unless by April the Arabs of West Bank and Gaza get some solid prospect of liberation from life under Israeli soldiers the pressure will mount on Egypt to break off the Camp David process and opt for the general conference approach.
Second, there is a widespread feeling among Arabs that time is running out for a peaceful outcome. Israel has announced ambitious plans for more Jewish settlements in the occupied territories. If this process goes along unchecked, the Egyptians will be put under probably irresistible pressure from the Arab community to break off Camp David and begin thinking in terms of another war.
In practical effect, President Reagan must persuade Israel between now and April to make peace on terms considerably less than Mr. Begin's demand for total annexation of the occupied territories. Unless Mr. Reagan can whittle down the Begin position, Washington will lose control of the Middle East process, Moscow will be back in play, and a drift toward another Arab-Israel war will have set in.
In this complex game which engages the whole diplomatic world the political maneuverings in Washington for influence at the White House are just as important right now as the formal talks on the scene between Egypt and Israel over the technical details of autonomy for the Arabs of West Bank and Gaza.