The Reagan administration announced yesterday it would give top priority in the Middle East to halting what it sees as the "deteriorating position of the West vis-a-vis the Soviet Union" in the region rather than pressing ahead immediately with trying to solve the deadlocked Egyptian-Israeli negotiations on Palestinian self-rule.
The administration's view, disclosed by State Department spokesman William Dyess under questioning by reporters, reflects an important policy shift with potentially major implications throughout the Middle East, including the Persian Gulf. It also could be an important factor in elections in Israel later this year.
Essentially, the move reverses the priorities of the Carter administration, which believed that resolving the lingering dispute over Palestinian autonomy and Israeli-occupied territories would be the most important factor in establishing wider and more friendlier ties between this country and the rest of the Arab world and in bringing stability to that turbulent area.
Dyess told reporters that the United States remains "fully committed" to the search for a comprehensive peace in the region and is ready to rejoin the Palestinian autonomy talks if Egypt and Israel can agree on a date to resume the talks, suspended since last year.
But the spokesman made clear that those talks are no longer the paramount American concern in the area under a new administration that has focused intensively in its first month on what it sees as Soviet expansionism around the world.
"We are convinced," Dyess said, "that the highest priority in that region at this time should be to arrest the deteriorating position of the West vis-a-vis the Soviet Union."
When asked for examples of how the western position had deteriorated, Dyess mentioned such things as the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, which moved Soviet forces close to the Persian Gulf; the continuing Iran-Iraq war, and general tensions created by the seizure of the U.S. Embassy and hostages in Tehran.
When asked what the United States was doing to halt this deteriorating position, he said, "we are consulting with the governments of the area" and "from these consultations we believe a course of action will emerge."
Dyess' comments yesterday are said to reflect the view of Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. that U.S. efforts, at least for a while, must be concentrated on countering or shutting off a real or would-be Soviet inroads into the region rather than concentrating on local issues.
Senior officials say that a major study is under way in the State Department that will probably take about two months to complete. It focuses on the oil-rich Persian Gulf and seeks to take a hard new look at what U.S. interests are in the region, what kinds of military capabilities the United States needs to protect those interests, what are the interests of all the Arab and non-Arab nations in the region and how American and regional interests can be combined in a convincing U.S. policy toward the area.
Aside from the Soviet presence in Afghanistan, Moscow also has a presence and influence in Ethiopia and South Yemen. The revolution in Iran has removed a former U.S. ally and replaced it with an unstable regime.
On the other hand, though the State Department spoke of a deteriorating western position in the region, there are also pluses.
President Reagan has made clear the United States is not seeking revenge against Iran, thus at least easing the strain between Washington and Tehran and therefore not playing into the hands of those who fear a possible leftist takeover in that trouble country.
The Iranian war with Iraq may already have contributed to some lessening of Moscow's ties with Iraq and an improvement of western relations with Baghdad. Similarly, U.S. relations with Algeria improved after the hostage crisis and many officials of the outgoing Carter administration said they felt that the quick dispatch of U.S. aid, including radar planes, to Saudi Arabia during the initial phases of the Iran-iraq war already strengthened the view among friendly Gulf countries that a closer relationship with Washington was in their interests.
Haig's views on the need to give priority to the overall strategic problem in the region for the moment were first disclosed to visiting Israeli Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir during talks last Friday night, according to a report in The New York Times yesterday which was verified by other officials.
The implication for the Israeli elections, officials say, is that the government of Prime Minister Menachem Begin is clearly anxious to have the United States try and end the impasse with Egypt on the Palestinian issue so that it can campaign on a peace issue and diffuse opposition at home. The administration here, however, apparently does not see much chance of a quick breakthrough. There is also the possibility that some officials here are not anxious to help Begin, whose actions in the occupied territories have made a settlement of the Palestinian issue even harder, in the view of his critics.