Those who seem to like things the way they are in the Middle East (mostly hard-line Israelis and their American camp followers) would have us cast a jaundiced eye on this week's visit of Egypt's president Hosni Mubarak. He is no Anwar Sadat, they say (forgetting that the Sadat policies that made him a folk hero on American television were his undoing at home). His effort to promote a revival of the Middle East peace process is self-serving, they say; he wants only to reassert Arab leadership and win America's good opinion of Egypt as peacemaker.
A similarly suspicious eye, the cynics say, should be cast upon the recent efforts of Jordan's King Hussein to organize some kind of Palestinian representation for new negotiations for an Arab-Israeli settlement.
The bottom line of this put-down is that the Arabs are deeply divided between obstructionists (Syria being the worst of the lot) and moderates (Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia among others). The latter are too weak to get their act together; they don't care, deep down, about what happens to the 1.4 million Palestinians on the West Bank and in Gaza.
There is a lot of truth in all of this. The Middle East is one big economic crisis. Even the "oil rich" Gulf states are suffering from an oil glut. Moslem fundamentalism is not limited in its extremism to the Shiite terrorism against the Israelis in Lebanon or to the messianic designs of Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini. It preys on poverty, on the Palestinian issue, on Egypt's separate peace treaty with the Israelis, on Jordan's peace gestures -- on any issue that serves the purpose of overthrowing moderate regimes.
So, yes, the so-called moderates do want more economic and/or arms aid from the United States. It has not escaped their notice that Israel is bidding for by far the largest slice of the new $14 billion total foreign-aid bill -- perhaps as much as $3.8 billion.
But the point is that absolutely none of this is inconsistent with what psychiatrists would call a "cry for help." That it may be self-serving makes it no less genuine or less deserving of a serious and sustained U.S. response.
To say that nothing in the way of progress has so far materialized is to forget the extraordinary record of Jimmy Carter's efforts in the first year of his presidency to work both sides of the Arab-Israeli dispute. Brushing off the negative responses, he tested the alternatives and, by a process of elimination, helped promote the breakthrough of the Sadat visit to Jerusalem that led ultimately to Camp David. It is to forget, as well, how badly the stage was set for progess in early 1977 by comparison with the way it is set today.
Israel and Egypt are at peace, however ragged their relationship. Protesting Israel's pressure in Lebanon, Egypt has withdrawn its ambassador. But they talk, as witness the recent visit to Jerusalem by Osama Lel Vaz, Mubarak's foreign-affairs adviser.
The Egyptian president could have had no more eloquent advance man than the Israeli Cabinet minister without portfolio, Ezer Weizman, an increasingly influential adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, who was on television via satellite the other Sunday. A questioner wanted to know whether Hussein and Mubarak were merely making "gestures of progress . . . so they can come and make a raid on the American treasury." Leaving aside that Hussein has pretty much given up on the American treasury, Weizman went out of his way to say that "knowing President Mubarak personally, I think that his initiative is far more fundamental than some people would like to show; I think that he sticks to the Camp David (Accords). . . . What has happened in the last week or two is a good beginning."
That's not the way high-ranking Israeli officials we talking in early 1977. In fact, Israel changed prime ministers, from Labor's Yitzhak Rabin to the Likud's Menachem Begin, in the course of Carter's peace efforts, and it's a close question which one Carter found the more difficult to deal with. The Camp David Accords are in place as a point of departure. The national coalition government under Labor Party Prime Minister Peres has accepted Mubarak's offer to meet with the Egyptians, Jordan and whatever Palestinian representation can be worked out.
Mubarak has his own incentive for early action. As the only Arab leader at peace with Israel, he is vulnerable to extremist forces. His influence will wane and his domestic problems will grow if he has nothing to show for his latest initiative, the more so since power will shift from Peres to the Likud's Yitzhak Shamir as prime minister under the "unity" government's terms next year.
He will be asking President Reagan not for a headlong plunge, but for probes of both sides, first with some sort of Egyptian, Jordanian and Palestinian delegation and then with the Israelis, before any serious mediation is begun. Taking it step by step has its risks. But the history of four wars tells us the risks are as nothing compared with the risk of American inattention to Middle East "cries for help."