SENATE APPROVAL of the president's Mideast warplane package reflects much more than the gathering weight of Arab oil and money. At least since 1973 successive administrations have felt that the best way to end the region's deadly cycle of war and to launch a process leading toward peace is for the United States to make itself equally useful and trusted on both sides. It is that effort that the Senate has now endorsed. To see it as abandonment of Israel or appeasement of the Arabs, as some partisans of both do, misses the point.Israel has lost its "special relationship" with the United States, if by that is meant the Israel regional monopoly on access to modern American arms. But it has not lost its claim on special American concern for its security and welfare. As did its immediate predecessors, the Carter administration believes the United States can best honor that obligation by reinforcing the more moderate states and tendencies in the Arab world, even as it continues to uphold Israel. We agree.
As much as the administration tries to express friendship for Israelis and Arabs in terms that are not mutually exclusive, many people, of different persuasions, persist in thinking - or hoping - that a choice must be made. That is the spirit in which the Senate vote is seen as a defeat for Israel. We would argue that in a real and long-term sense the United States remains deeply committed to Israeli security, as bruised and fearful as many Israeli currently feel. The results is surely, however, a costly defeat for the Israel lobby as a political force in Congress - a defeat deserving to be read as evidence that, popular myth and Arab apprehension notwithstanding, there are definite limits to the political power that American elements partial to Israel can bring to bear. The lobby has not been broken. But the Senate has confirmed the disposition of the executive branch to look at Mideast questions from the viewpoint of their overall effects.
The notion is now circulation that the United States should take a quick and demonstative step to bolster Israel - to ease its general discomfiture and give its moderates something they can use to show Israeli skeptics that the American connection is still working. Some American legislators are already talking of providing Israel, say, 75 more F16s. It might well be a good idea to work more closely with Israel on its long-term security requirements - though hardly in categories so politically volatile as warplanes. But what is surely a better idea is to renew attention to the negotiating process, which has been languishing since Egyt quit the table four months ago.
Two considerations are relevant. The first is that, after the plane fight, President Carter is in a strong position to ask Egypt to return to the table and start negotiating on the only proposals - Israel's - on the table. If President Sadat pulled out of the talks in January to induce the United States to apply more pressure on Israel, then he entirely succeeded. Mr. Carter went head-to-head with Prime Minister Begin in March, and got the planes for Egypt and Saudi Arabia in May. Egypt should resume negotiations.
The second new elements is that Mr. Begin and Mr. Dayan, in their most recent Washington visits, responded to American urging and undertook to start discussing Israel's proposals in a form - emphasizing arrangements on the ground rather than absolute principles - that Egypt might find more negotiable. One does not have to think there is magic in the new form to believe that it is vastly better for Israelis and Egyptians to engage quietly in detailed talks across a table than to contine the sterile routine of rhetorical confrontation at a distance.
The Carter administration, having argued for the warplane proposal on grounds that it would facilitate the search for peace, has an especially heavy responsiblity to demonstrate, with its new Arab partners as with its old Israeli friend, that that is so.