Saudi Arabia seems to be signaling its readiness to restore a duty repentant Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to the Arab fold.
The signals are coming at a time when the partnership between two key Arab states, archconservative Saudi Arabia and once "radical" Baathist Iraq, is acquiring a significance in the Arab and international arenas that the United States, Architect of the Camp David accords, can hardly afford to ignore.
In the clearest intimation of this readiness, the Saudi foreign minister. Prince Saud. Sunday told the Gulf newspaper Al Bayan that, "we are making efforts to bring Egypt back into the Arab camp because we consider its defection from it as a great victory for Israel."
This Saudi initiative follows another by King Hassan of Morocco, who promised Sadat that if he now takes a firm stand on Jerusalem, he will try to restore Egypt to Arab favor. For such a return to grace, however. Sadat will have to make a thorough admission of the error of his ways.
Just how far Saudi Arabia would expect Sadat to go is not clear. But that the Egyptian president is apparently deeply interested in the olive branch that the conservative Arab regimes, with the implicit support of Iraq, are holding out is not in doubt. His retreat for "meditation" on Mount Sinai and his current refusal to answer journalists' questions are perhaps indications of the mental strife through which he is passing.
It is hard to see how he can meet the minimum requirements of the Saudis, indulgent though they may be, without anything less than what the Israelis would interpret as a repudiation of Camp David itself. Influential Israelis are saying that he is coming dangerously close to that already.
It is an ironic reversal. During the Camp David negotiations, it was Egypt that insisted on "linkage." At that time. Egypt was struggling, with what eventually proved to be a complete lack of success, to make the implementation of the Egytian-Israeli peace treaty dependent on the completion of "autonomy" for the Palestinians. Now it is the Israelis who are hinting that they will not implement the peace treaty until the Egyptians accept their version of "autonomy."
It is Sadat's instinct to procrastinate to fudge a clear-cut decision in the hope that there will be a change of government in Israel. With an intransigent Likud Party replaced by a less rigid Labor government, plus a reelected Jimmy Carter, Sadat hopes the United States will resume its role as a "full partner" -- that is to say a pro-Egyptian one -- in the autonomy negotiations.
Meanwhile, the suspension of the negotiations, Cairo's rejection of Israel's policy on Jerusalem and the renewed Egyption press attacks on Menachem Begin can be seen as an attempt to impress Saudi Arabia in a manner that falls short of the drastic act on recently urged upon him by his former foreign minister Ismail Fahmi, namely the outright repudiation of Camp David.
The vital place which Saudi Arabia occupies in America's Middle East strategies is axiomatic. But, with characteristic tardiness, Washington seems to be waking up to what has long been obvious: that, under the guise of a militant nonalignment, no country is more ready than Iraq to render services to America and the West.
At the same time, however, these two allies of convenience, the Arab World's two most important oil exporters, are making it clear that they cannot help America -- unless America helps them.
For Saudi Arabia in particular, the position which the United States adopts at the forthcoming U.N. Security Council meeting on Jerusalem will be an important yardstick of its intentions.
After an emergency summit between Saudi Arabia's King Khalid and Iraqi President Saddam Hussem last week, the two leaders issued a warning -- to which many other Arab countries have subsequently subscribed -- that they will break all relations with any country which recognizes Jerusalem as Israel's capital.
It has not gone unnoticed in the Arab world that the Democratic National convention in New York this week will have to decide whether a pledge to that effect be inscribed in the party's electoral platform.