At first blush, the Middle East has the look of a circus run wild, without handlers, and still less a ringmaster. The peace-seekers and the trouble-makers are running around cajoling, snarling, bumping into each other.
The quick, rancorous breakup of the Arab summit at Fez is read by disaster mongers as a stunning blow to Arab "unity" and a heavy put-down of Saudi Arabia. America's stalwart ally. We are told Camp David teeters on one front (the windup of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty) and founders on another (the West Bank and Gaza "autonomy" plan). The Lebanese cease-fire's collpase is imminent, it is said.
But take a closer look. There's a certain method in the seeming madness -- some purposeful activity, some movement, however slow or jerky, in the general direction of settlement and rapprochement. And as a general rule, almost any such movement in the Middle East is healthier than the immobility and paralysis that so often in the past has led to a resort to force.
Consider that the U.S. special envoy. Philip Habib, is back on the scene.His track record as a settling influence is impressive. While he addresses the problem of the Syrian missiles in Lebanon and related Lebanese problems, a four-nation (Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait) subcommittee of the Arab League is still struggling to put together the pieces of something approaching a working Lebanese government.
The United States and Israel have apparently agreed on at least a tentative trade-off of a new "strategic" military relationship between the two countries in return for Israeli acceptance of Europeans in a Sinai peace-keeping force. Meanwhile, the talks on "autonomy" for the Palestinians on the West Bank and Gaza slog along.
In all this, the quick abort at Fez fits interestingly. To look at it contemptuously, as one more failure for Arab "unity," is to suggest there ever has been Arab unanimity (even in war against Israel) or that anything of the sort could be expected from so disparate an assortment of ancient, autocratic monarchies and new, radical, revolutionary republics.
To me, the meeting in Morocco had the sound and look of screeching brakes in an accident narrowly missed. Far from damaging the so-called "peace plan" of Saudi Crown Prince Fahd beyond repair, the fast gavel to adjourn probably saved it for more serious consideration when the time is riper.
Even its Saudi authors, some experts believe, were not disposed to haggle over it: by nature, they do not relish the sort of leadership it would have required to hammer out agreement. It was an embarrassment to Yasser Arafat, leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization, from the start: he could not hold his own splintered PLO to its support.
As for the no-shows, only the absence of Syria really counted. And there is evidence that Syria, in the right set of circumstances would be a supporter of the Fahd plan.According to a report just published on a "study mission" to the Middle East under the auspices of Seven Springs Center, "a high Syrian leader endorsed Prince Fahd's statement as a basis for negotiating peace in the Middle East and said it reflects the views of all Arabs." But the Syrians, according to Saudi diplomats, want to wait and see how the Lebanese situation and the Camp David process play out.
The point is that, as in any multiringed circus, timing is everything. The Fahd peace "principles" closely approximate key clements in the proposals of the European "initiative" they draw heavily from U.N. resohrtions; they have been smiled upon fleetingly, by the Reagan administration for their implicit concession of Israel's right to exist. On top of all this a pan-Arab embrace now would have heightened Israel's sense of isolation and perhaps might have dimmed its enthusiasm for meeting the crucial April 25, 1982, deadline for withdrawal from the Sinai, let alone the other peace initiatives under way.
Camp David, in short, has to be given every chance to run its course. Later will be time enough to see how the Fahd plan fits into various alternatives to "autonomy" if the Camp David process collapses.
The really key question is not whether this circus is running wild. The question is whether the only logical ringmaster, the Reagan administration, will have the wit, the will and the weight to crack the whip in the right places, in the right way -- and at the right time.