WASHINGTON — "It is too dangerous for the Middle East to drift without a peace process in play," a senior Reagan Administration official said recently to explain why Washington is trying to entice Israel, Jordan and probably other Arab parties to begin negotiating--even though there seems to be little chance that they could come to an agreement.
After months of almost total inaction, the Administration has sought to resume its accustomed role as mediator between Israel and its Arab adversaries. But the emphasis is almost entirely on getting the two sides to start talking, not on the far more complex question of what they might talk about.
The senior official, who talked to reporters on the understanding that he would not be named, said the most promising way to bring Israeli leaders face to face with Jordan's King Hussein is to call an international conference. He said this is so despite Washington's reluctance to bring the Soviet Union back into the Middle East picture, as well as the outright opposition of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.
"One of the (possible) approaches is to explore the international peace conference," the official said, repeating a longstanding U.S. policy position that, in the past, has been interpreted as only tepid support for the idea. However, when the official was pressed to list the other approaches being considered, he did not name any.
The peace process was virtually paralyzed long before revelations of American arms sales to Iran shattered U.S. credibility with friendly Arab governments and seemed to wreck Washington's standing as a conciliator. But now, the senior official said, the corrosive impact of the scandal has receded--at least as far as Arab states are concerned--and the time seems ripe for the United States to demonstrate its reliability as a peacemaker.
"We have quietly re-engaged to see where we are," the official said. "The peace process is not dead. It is not even suspended."
Nevertheless, non-government Middle East experts say that President Reagan is unwilling to risk his already damaged prestige in an all-out drive for a Middle East settlement. These experts believe that the Administration, in its waning months, will concentrate on trying to unravel procedural problems blocking the peace process, leaving the substantive issues to the next President.
"What might be done through persistent, quiet diplomacy is to sort out the procedural issues so that a new Administration, come 1989, might be able to say: 'Agreement has already been reached on procedure, so let's start talking about substance,' " said William B. Quandt, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. "Procedure is not very interesting stuff, but it is the only thing going on.
"There is an emerging consensus that it is not taboo to talk about an international conference," Quandt, formerly of the National Security Council staff, said. "(Secretary of State George P.) Shultz is the bellwether on that. Last fall, when (then-Israeli Prime Minister Shimon) Peres came to Washington, Shultz was negative on it. This spring, when Shamir came here, he was much more positive.
"In between, there was the whole Iran situation," he said. "There may be more interest now to do something for the Arabs."
First Proposed in 1985
Hussein first proposed a conference in 1985 to be attended by Israel, neighboring Arab countries, representatives of the Palestinians and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council: the United States, the Soviet Union, China, Britain and France. The Jordanian monarch said he was prepared for direct negotiations with Israel in the context of that conference.
Peres, now foreign minister in Israel's "national unity" government, has said he supports a conference, provided that certain conditions are met. Shamir, however, is flatly opposed. As a result, the Israeli government has no official position on the issue.
Hussein, who has said that he feels betrayed by the U.S. weapons sales to Iran, along with recent congressional votes blocking U.S. arms sales to Jordan, rejected--for the time being, at least--an invitation to visit Washington for high-level talks about the peace process.
Instead, he sent his prime minister, Zaid Rifai, and his foreign minister, Taher Masri, to confer with Shultz, Vice President George Bush and other officials. The two arrived in Washington on Monday and met at their hotel with Richard W. Murphy, assistant secretary of state for Near East and South Asian affairs. They are scheduled to talk to Shultz and Bush today.
Administration officials say the talks with Rifai and Masri are designed to clear the way for a Hussein visit. But the officials add that very little of substance could be decided without the personal participation of the king.