The Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty that President Carter has succeeded in patching together will add new strains to the already troubled strategic alliance the Carter administration has sought to fashion with Saudi Arabia and other moderate Arab states.
An open break is highly unlikely. Saudi Arabia's royal family views its U.S. ties as the kingdom's primary shield of defense. But Arab diplomats yesterday predicted that U.S. Saudi cooperation on matters ranging from oil prices to regional security will be much less firm for an indefinite period.
Privately, some western European diplomats also expressed concern about the impact of Carter's stunning success on the U.S. position in the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula in the wake of the collapse of the shah of Iran's government.
The final act in the drama of the long-delayed Egyptian-Israeli treaty is being played out just as Carter is seeking to bolster the informal alliance with the Saudis by rushing arms shipments, with accompanying U.S. military instructors, to North Yemen without waiting for congressional review of the move.
The immediate effect of a treaty-signing may be to erase the political and diplomatic gains that Carter sought abroad with his "get-tough" stance in the border war in the Yemens, which is now also getting second thoughts on Capitol Hill after being greeted with strong initial support.
While there was little public reaction from Arab countries to news that a treaty appears to be only days away from signature, Saudi Arabia has made it clear that it views a treaty without firm linkage to Palestinian rule over the West Bank and the Gaza Strip as a destabilizing and radicalizing force in the Middle East.
That is disputed by administration strategists who worry about Soviet advances in the area and who see the treaty as the first vital step in shoring up not only Egyptian President Anwar Sadat but also other pro-western rulers across the region. These strategists argue persuasively that a temporary Arab estrangement from Sadat and Carter is a political price worth paying for peace between Israel and Egypt, the Arab world's largest nation.
In unveiling the treaty to friendly Arab states, the administration is likely to rely on two strategies.One will be to emphasize a continuing American commitment to prodding Israel into granting true self-rule for the West Bank and Gaza in the second set of negotiations called for by the Camp David accords.
"The negotiations on the West Bank will be U.S.-Israeli negotiations" more than they will be Arab-Israeli negotiations, an involved U.S. official said before Carter decided to go on his Middle East mission.
The other strategy will emphasize the treaty as part of a new American commitment to an increased military role in the Persian Gulf and the Middle East. The quick decisions last week to rush arms to North Yemen, to move an aircraft carrier force into the Arabian Sea and to offer to send an armed squadron of F15 fighters to Saudi Arabia all foreshadow this strategy.
The tone of the administration's deliberations on these questions was made explicit Monday, when, under questioning, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State William R. Crawford told the House subcommittee on the Middle East that the administration was prepared to go to war, if necessary, to protect Saudi Arabia.
U.S. officials reported yesterday that much of the border fighting that began Feb. 23 between North Yemen and its Marxist neighbor, South Yemen, has died down as Arab League mediation efforts continue.
Pentagon sources said Jordanian army advisers are on the way to train the North Yemenis on the 105-and 155-mm artillery guns that are part of the $400 million package of weapons that Carter decided on March 7 to release for immediate delivery to remote, mountainous North Yemen.
A handful of Egyptian advisers has arrived in North Yemen since the fighting started, these sources said.
Administration officials hope that the Saudis will be impressed by the fact that the North Yemen fighting triggered Carter's first-ever use of the presidential waiver that gives him the power to dispense with the normal 30-day congressional review of large arms sales by certifying that an emergency existed in North Yemen that vitally affected U.S. interests.
"That was a signal for the Saudis," said one U.S. official. "The entire package is intended as a political signal, to the South Yemenis and the Russians not to push any further, and to the Saudis that we won't let this be pushed any further. The North Yemenis couldn't possibly get these arms in place in time to determine the outcome of the present fighting."
Carter used the waiver to advance deliveries, originally set for May, of M60 tanks and of F5E fighters, for which North Yemen does not now have fully trained pilots.
Intial congressional reaction ranged from "highly supportive to neutral at worst," said one State Department official, who predicted that a reaction to the perception of increasing U.S. weakness abroad and Soviet gains in Angola, Ethiopia, Afghanistan and Iran was beginning to set in.
A Defense Department official also noted as "very significant" the failure of Congress to react to the president's decision to bypass the arms sale review period, designed as one of the chief congressional safeguards against Vietnam-type involvements.
But tough questioning of Crawford by Reps. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.) and Gerry E. Studds (D-Mass.) and press reports Tuesday that 70 U.S. military instructors would accompany the arms shipment appear to have provoked some doubts on Capitol Hill this week.
"I fear these decisions are made to reassure the Saudis and for domestic political considerations rather than for genuine national security reasons," Studds said. "People in Congress have begun this week trying to find out where North Yemen is and how our national interests are involved in a conflict in which the administration admits its best information is meager, and on the side of a government the administration admits is unstable. The suspicion is growing this is a flag-waving exercise to convince people we are still strong."