Saudis hope to polish peace plan for resale next spring; Fez failure prompts gentler tactics - and focus on Syria
Frustrated in its drive to set a comparatively moderate, pan-Arab strategy toward Israel, Saudi Arabia is now expected to take a more circumspect tack - at least until April.
Saudi diplomats will try again to sell Crown Prince Fahd's eight-point peace plan to the Arab world as a post-Camp David bargaining position toward Israel.
Morocco's King Hassan II, in whose country the aborted 12th Arab Summit - with Fahd's plan as centerpiece - was just barely begun last week, has promised that a new summit would be attempted in Morocco in six months time.
That would put it after an important milestone is passed: the April 26 turnover of the last Israeli-occupied strip of Sinai to Egypt. Many diplomats see this as the effective windup of the three-year Camp David process, though certainly not the end of the treaty guaranteeing peace and normal relations between Egypt and Israel.
In the interim two important issues promise to dominate news from the Middle East:
* Egyptian-Israeli negotiations to achieve a formula for Palestinian autonomy in Israeli-held land.
Although autonomy talks are continuing monthly, Egypt and Israel so far are nowhere near agreement on the basic question of what ''autonomy'' actually means: A major step toward nationhood as Palestine? Or only some local governing authority with ultimate Israeli control over the territory?
* The US-sponsored attempt to form a Sinai peacekeeping force with European participation.
Israel's Menachem Begin has objected to involvement of Britain, France, Italy , and the Netherlands in the force because they have endorsed Palestinian rights to a homeland. Washington, which would love to broaden the tripartite Camp David by involving European powers, has been pressuring Israel to accept the Europeans and to consider their view toward the Palestinians as an unrelated item. Mr. Begin's Cabinet is considering the matter at time of writing.
Because of these issues, many Western and Arab analysts believe the Saudis were premature in pushing for the Fahd plan at the Fez summit.
But without a plan such as Fahd's the Arabs are in the same sort of disarray as when Egypt made peace with Israel. This prospect worries the Saudis who see Israel running away with dominance of a divided Arab world. Thus the plan will still be pushed, but through bilateral negotiation and more oblique forums, such as the Saudi-based Islamic Conference Organization.
Saudi diplomacy, according to Middle East analysts at this summit, will have to be aimed primarily at Syria. The last-minute decision of Syrian President Hafez Assad not to attend the Fez summit contributed to its collapse more than anything else.
With influence over the Palestine Liberation Organization, with its troops controlling much of Lebanon, and with links to the Soviet Union, Syria is the most significant counterweight to the wealthy, pro-Western Saudis. Syria, according to veteran observers of that tightly governed country, so far has seen the Fahd plan as offering too many concessions toward Israel.
What Saudi Arabia must do, say Arabs who realize the limitations of the Arab world, is convince Syria that a combination of Israel's superior military, disputes among Arabs, and the loss of powerful Egypt makes that Syrian position untenable.
But the Saudis will have to do the convincing in a very gentle way - more gentle than the aggressive lobbying that preceded the Fez summit.