The Middle East has finally worn us out. I don't know how many stories headlined "Hussein Hints at Arafat Talks" or "Damascus Meeting in Doubt" I have read over the past decade, but -- like an awful lot of other Americans, I suspect -- I feel used up. My instinct when I see another is to run and hide. We all pay grave, formal lip service to the idea that the Middle East is a surpassingly important part of the world, and we bow on cue when the words "Camp David peace process" are used. But we have lost our patience with the intricacies and subtleties of pursuing a settlement there. And in this we have been greatly aided by the ascendancy of the Arab terrorist and associated Islamic tormentors of our people and our interests overseas. I believe all this has led us to the edge of making a vast foreign-policy mistake.

Actually what I see coming is more like a reversion, a flight back to the generalized, hostile attitudes toward Arabs and/or Muslims as a collectivity that prevailed both as government policy and as public prejudice for so many years. It is hard to remember now how contemptuous and uninterested most of us were in the period before Henry Kissinger made his exotic (it was thought) visit to Saudi Arabia in the early 1970s, before Anwar Sadat, before there was anything much but a caricature of Arabs to interrupt the oblivion in which they dwelled so far as Americans were concerned. It has only been in the past decade or so that people in this country have begun to differentiate among Arab countries and individuals and interests, the essential precondition to making any progress at all toward the goals of peace and stability in the region.

True, that progress has been fitful, costly and ambiguous. But it has been real. And true, new conditions of previously unimagined hatred and violence, much of both directed toward us, have arisen in parts of the region and among parts of its populace in the same period. But this hard truth does not argue for either a withdrawal from involvement or for the kind of blanket, indiscriminate anti-Arab sentiment one hears expressed in so many public places these days. On the contrary, if anything, we should be seeking to sharpen and refine our involvement with those Arabs who are themselves enemies and targets of the violent, hate-filled elements in the region. We should be making more distinctions and discriminating judgments among them, not fewer.

The ruckus going on in Washington over the administration's desire to resupply the Saudis with a type of weapon we had sold them some years ago and which they have used in accordance with the terms of the original sale is an example. A more consequential struggle on the same subject will come a little later when it is time to complete the formal transfer to them of the AWACS aircraft which they bought for $6 billion and which they have employed to keep an eye on a menacing, aggressive Iran. The Saudi regime has been penciled in for extinction by the ayatollah and Qaddafi and a lot of the other lovely fellows out there. Its ability to resist and survive is in our interest and -- yes -- in Israel's when you consider what any successor government is likely to be. But the going mood in Washington just now is that the Saudis are just another bunch of Arabs who condemned us on the bombing of Libya and who pay off the PLO and so to hell with them.

It is of course the case that the Saudis, proprietors of a rich, vulnerable survivor state, a kind of gold-plated, underpopulated dependency, pay tribute all over the place. They buy, or at least attempt to buy, what we should in another context call "protection" from some of the thugs in the neighborhood. It is also the case that they have over the years contributed much, especially in material terms, to the campaign against Israel. But the term "moderate Arab" is not the semantic joke that some make it out to be. Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia are by no stretch of the imagination friends of Israel. But a peace settlement with them is conceivable. With some of the other neighboring Arab and Muslim countries and populations it is not. That surely is a distinction we should keep in mind. It is a distinction that has cost all of these countries plenty in enmity from the radical forces in the area.

We wish they were much more forthcoming about a settlement with Israel and much more resolute about resisting and not buying off or playing footsie with the terrorists and vandals who inhabit the region and profess to speak for it. (Actually, we wish some of these same things about our peerless European allies, but we don't make quite so much of a to-do about it. On the Saudi arms deal there has been lots of congressional complaint about Saudi criticism of our policies -- a standard which, if generally applied, would happily relieve us of any foreign obligations at all.) It is true that Saudi Arabia and other Arab League countries last week resisted the predictable call to rally for Qaddafi in his war with us, but Americans want more.

I believe that, as is the case with racial and religious groups within this country, the refusal of people to speak out publicly against an ethnic kinsman who has violated their own sense of decency contributes powerfully to the tendency of others to see them all as one vast, undifferentiated guilty group. So I think Arab timidity plays a part in what is happening now. I also think you can become hysterical about it, as is the case with former Sen. James Abourezk, who expresses fears of "internment camps" a la the Japanese-American model in World War II. But we do have a tendency to swing to these harsh mass ethnic judgments. And just as people were talking of kicking out all the Iranians during the hostage days, so now you hear and see a tendency to invest all Arabs with the attributes of the vicious terrorist. If we succumb to this we will be doing in the very people we should be trying to protect -- and giving our enemies a big win.