Is there genuine political movement or only a hullaballoo? That is the questions that has to be put in judging the Arab reaction to the deal cut by Anwar Sadat of Egypt and Menachem Begin of Israel at the Camp David summit.
While a final answer requires time, so far the evidence indicates the Arab world remains too divided to block the accords. Unless the other Arab leaders show far more progress toward realignment than is now apparent, President Sadat will be free to press forward to an early agreement with Israel.
The pattern of Arab relations before Camp Daivd formed around Sadat's previous peace initiative. His trip to Jerusalem rent the Arab world in many more factions than is denoted by the useful but oversimplified division between radical and conservative regimes.
Five groups - the Palestine Liberation Organization and the government of Syria, Algeria, Libya and South Yemen - opposed Sadat in a "rejectionist front." The leaders of Algeria, Libya and South Yemen, to be sure, are radicals at odds with Sadat and his more conservative allies.
But Syria and the PLO formed a front to prevent being left out of a separate peace with Isreal. Their willingness to make peace, and a longstanding fued with Syria, caused the most radical of all Arab states, Iraq, to stay out of the front.
The great economic power in the Arab world, Saudi Arabia, feared sabotage by the terrorists in the pay of the PLO and Col. Muammar Qaddafi of Libya. The Saudis were even more worried that pressure on Sadat might put Egypt in the hands of a hostile, radical leader. So they voiced doubts about the Jerusalem visit but continued to pay the vast subsidies on which Egypt depends for economic survival.
Two genuinely moderate leaders - King Hassan of Morocco and President Nimeiri of the Sudan - actively supported Sadat. King Hussein of Jordan, keen to maintain good relations with both his Syrian and Saudi neighbors, sat and waited.
In the wake of Camp David the rejection front ought to be able to mount a wider resistance to Sadat. For although the Jerusalem visit pointed to a separate peace with Israel, it was open-ended enough to afford pretexts for avoiding commitment. It was possible to believe - as some Saudis evidently did - that Sadat was only trying to show up the intransigence of Begin.
No such ambiguity softens the Camp David accord. It says in black and white that peace between Egypt and Israel would come first. It strongly implies that unless Syria and the PLO jump on board there will be a settlement in the territories on the West Bank of the Jordan. If that occurred, the power to overthrow the settlement would lose both its military force (which depends on Egypt) and its moral force (which depends upon the Palestinians in the West Bank).
The leaders of the rejection front, meeting in Damascus last week, clearly perceived the need to broaden their ranks. The two chief patrons of terrorist power (Qaddafi of Libya and Yasser Arafat of the PLO) were dispatched to visit Hussein - thus ending a nonspeak of half a dozen years.
Presumably the two visitors promised to lay off the rough stuff if Hussein threw in with the rejection fron while threatening to intensify it if he joined with Sadat. Almost certainly they asked Hussein to pass on the same mixture of whitemail and blackmail to the Saudis.
So far, however, that tactic has not worked. Hussein continues to follow a wait-and-see policy. So do the Saudis. Iraq is further out of the rejection front than ever. Morocco and the Sudan continue to back Sadat.
In those confused conditions, the Egyptian president is free to move forward with his project for peace with Israel by Christmas - the more so as the United States can take steps that will further diminish the power of the rejection front.
One easy diplomatic move is to strengthen Sadat by getting the Japanese and Europeans - especially the French - to back him openly. Another is to encourage Chinese support for Sadat, thus underlining - the better for the Saudis to see and fear - how much the radical Arab regimes promote Soviet influence in the Middle East.
Finally there is the possibility of sending to the Congress new defense or foreign-aid requests. These could provide more money for Israel, Egypt and, if Hussein joined the negotiation, Jordan. Carrots would thus be held out to the countries most critical to making the promise of Camp David become a reality.