WASHINGTON — The Reagan Administration has failed in its drive to get peace talks between Israel and Jordan under way this year, and time is running out on the negotiating effort, a senior State Department official warned Wednesday.
Although the official acknowledged that some progress was made in 1985, he said the United States no longer is seeking preliminary talks with Palestinian negotiators because both sides have agreed that they are unnecessary.
The United States, Israel and Jordan have all agreed that some form of international conference could be useful in starting direct Arab-Israeli talks, he said. And he noted that there are some signs that Syria's position on negotiations with Israel is now "open to question"--a possible easing of the Syrians' earlier refusal to even discuss the issue of talks.
But, he added: "Naturally, we all focus on how much remains to be done. . . . Progress has been relatively undramatic and incremental. . . . The clock is running. Time is not inexhaustible."
In a briefing for reporters on the state of the Administration's peace initiative, the official, who spoke on the condition that he not be identified by name, conceded that hopes for the arrangement of direct talks by the end of the year have been dashed since October.
"The positions of the parties (Israel and Jordan) have converged on a number of key points," said the official, who has been directly involved in negotiations over possible peace talks. "They have agreed to work toward prompt and direct negotiations. They are no longer seeking a guaranteed outcome in advance. They have accepted the concept of an international forum to facilitate the opening of direct negotiations."
He said the United States has dropped the idea of a U.S.-Palestinian meeting leading up to Israeli-Arab talks--an idea that consumed several months of maneuvering earlier this year. Israel had objected to the idea, and the U.S. official indicated that the Arabs are no longer insisting on it.
Opposed, Now Accepts
He also said the United States now accepts the idea, proposed by Jordan's King Hussein, of an international conference that would open direct Israeli-Arab talks. Secretary of State George P. Shultz initially opposed such a conference, which could involve the Soviet Union in the peace process, but has come to believe that it could be helpful as long as it does not get in the way of the direct peace talks.
The precise form of such a conference remains one of the basic procedural issues on which Israel and Jordan disagree, he said. The other, he said, is the nature of Palestinian participation in any talks; Israel wants no members of the Palestine Liberation Organization involved, while Jordan and the Palestinians of the Israeli-occupied West Bank insist that some PLO participation, even if indirect, is essential.
Some critics have charged that the Administration has failed to put sufficient energy into the issue, pointing out that President Reagan has spent little time on the talks. Previous U.S.-mediated agreements in the Middle East required substantial pressure on the participants from Presidents Richard M. Nixon and Jimmy Carter.
"Could more have been done? You can argue that question endlessly," the State Department official said. "We were not inactive. The President was in very steady communication with various leaders, as was the secretary (Shultz)."
But he acknowledged that the Administration stumbled in failing to win approval in Congress for a $1.5-billion arms sale to Jordan.
"I can't say it's going to destroy the peace process," he said. "It's going to put it at risk. It does affect (King Hussein's) confidence in us to deliver, to deal on a whole range of issues."
He ran down a list of other obstacles blocking progress toward negotiations, including Palestinian terrorism--which he said has "distracted" governments from working toward peace--and the current Israeli-Syrian standoff over Syrian missile batteries that can fire into Lebanese airspace.
"Is the crisis (over the missiles) behind us? No, it is still very much on the minds of all of us," he said.
Signs of Flexibility
Still, he said, there have been signs of possible flexibility from the Syrian regime, which has consistently opposed direct negotiations with Israel.
"The fact is, it was not an absurd subject to talk about the peace process a few weeks ago in Damascus," he said. "They have very clear positions . . . but they're ready to discuss (peace), and that was a change from six, seven months previously."
The official said he does not believe that Syria's deployment of anti-aircraft missiles closer to Lebanon is being maintained as a deliberate attempt to stall the peace process. Rather, he said, "I see it in context of their whole defense arrangements."