THE REAGAN administration's quiet decision to suspend all new arms deliveries to Israel and the moderate Arab states, pending a policy review, is the best thing the United States has done in the area since Camp David. Although specific sales to specific countries have been held up in the past, no similar area-wide pause in deliveries is on record. No doubt different officials have different purposes in mind in supporting this pause, but if it is handled wisely, it could be a boon.
Israel and Arab states such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan are good friends of the United States. There can be no question of cutting them off or putting their security at new risk. The point here is, however, that the United States is arming countries that are in a state of war with each other and that calculate their defense needs in large measure by what Washington ships to the other party. This is a context that cries for American balance and restraint, the more so because perceived weapons needs are cruelly exacerbating Israel's tremendous economic crisis and pushing Israelis and Arabs alike into ever more mutually troublesome dependence on Washington.
Then there are the Russians, who supply the more radical Arabs, Syria, Libya and Iraq -- all hostile to Israel and some hostile to Egypt, another close American friend. This is a harder case, since obviously the United States cannot practice unilateral restraint. Even in Israel, however, voices are heard suggesting that the United States consult with Moscow to regulate the flow of arms. The whole matter of great-power regional consultation is laden with political booby traps. Yet officials of the two countries are to hold a rare meeting on the Mideast next month, while the Washington policy review will still be going on.
If there is one basic and continuing flaw in American policy over time, it is the failure to relate its pursuit of good relations with this or that Middle Eastern country to an overall strategy aimed at stability and peace. No one halfway familiar with the area will underestimate the difficulty of connecting the provision of arms to the pursuit of negotiated settlements. Nor will anyone halfway familiar with the area deny the necessity of seeking such a link.
Something like Mr. Reagan's peace plan of 1982 needs to be carefully revived. The moment is not the best, but then, the moment is never the best. The United States' Arab friends will help some. Israel has, for a while at least, a prime minister who believes in compromise with Jordan.
The administration's new arms pause may turn out to be just a tactical gesture, meant or used to reduce diplomatic tension for a few months. If that is so, the world will go on, which means, in the Middle East, more tension, uncertainty, expense, suffering and danger -- the area's familiar wasting disease.