Out of the swirling fog of inter-Arab politics there now emerges evidence that Anwar Sadat of Egypt has been put in a tight corner. He is advancing one far-out proposal after another in a desperate bid to keep the Arab world moving toward the Geneva peace conference, with Israel favored by Washington.
He may just succeed. But the mere fact that America's best friend in the Arab world has been obliged to do so much bobbing and weaving raises new questions about the diplomacy of the Carter administration in the Middle East.
Politics among the Arabs, now as in the past, is dominated by a difference of outlook and interests between President Sadat of Egypt and President Hafez Assad of Syria. Sadat has the keenest interest in resuming negotiations with Israel.
Two previous rounds of talks under Henry Kissinger returned to Egypt large chunks of the land occupied by Israel in the Sinai desert. A third round would probably end Israel's occupation of Egyptian territory completely.
Sadat would then be free to turn from security issues to the economic development that Egypt so desperately needs. His whole policy - including the break with Russia, the 1973 war and the embrace of the United States - would have been vindicated.
President Assad, by contrast, can hope to get back only a tiny bit of land on the Golan Heights from direct negotiations with Israel. The Syrians, moreover, have always considered themselves the front-line fighters of pan-Arab nationalism. They dream dreams of a Greater Syria with heavy influence over Jordan and a Palestinian state.
As a member of a minority community - the Alawites - Assad is under speical pressure to fulfill nationlist objectives. So he has been insisting that further negotiations deal with Israeli withdrawal from all occupied Arab territories and the rights of the Palestinians to a homeland.
The drive of the Carter administration for a "comprehensive settlement" at a reconvened Geneva peace conference has dealt high cards to Assad. Clearly there could be no comprehensive settlement without Syria. So Assad has stepped up his demands for Israeli withdrawal and Palestinian rights. Further to strengthen his bargaining position, he visited Moscow and firmed up ties with Russia.
The need to bring Syria to the table led the United States to work out with Russia, six weeks ago, a joint statement urging early reconvening of the Geneva conference. The joint American-Russian declaration intensified the fears of the Israelis that they were being forced into a deal to turn over land for a new state that would be run by the Palestine Liberation Organization. So the Israelis worked out with the United States a complicated procedure for return to Geneva. The procedure limited the scope of the Palestinian delegation and the role of the PLO; it virtually excluded negotiations on a Palestinian state and opened the way for quick bilateral talks where Israel and Egypt could get down to business.
In riposte the Syrians moved to make the PLO role more explicit and to buy themselves a place at any negotiations between Egypt and Israel. They won strong support for that position from other Arab states and started to pin down Sadat, first at a meeting of Arab foreign ministers in Tunis over last weekend and then at a summit meeting of Arab leaders.
In these conditions Sadat began maneuvering. To impart a sense of momentum to negotiations and to minimize procedural points, he indicated that peace was so important he would be prepared to talk to the Israelis in their parliament in Jerusalem. To further diminish the procedural issue he suggested that the PLO might be represented at Geneva by an American professor of Palestinian origin. Finally, to downplay the Tunis meeting, he announced that he would go to Damascus for a talk with Assad this week.
Thanks to these maneuvers, Sadat has some bargaining room. If Assad relaxes some of his demands, Sadat can easily back down from the proposals regarding a visit to Jerusalem and the naming of an American professor to represent the PLO. So a deal could be struck.
Whatever happens, this crazy episode demonstrates that the drive for a "comprehensive settlement," which has put off the Israelis so badly, also embarrasses Sadat. It suggests that the best way to proceed is to try get things going between the parties who truly want to talk - the Israelis and the Egyptians.