Washington — The Reagan administration has put the Palestinian autonomy talks on the back burner for the time being, saying that its first priority in the Middle East is the overall Soviet threat to the area.
But Middle East specialists here wonder how long the Palestinian question will remain on the back burner after Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr.'s journey to the Middle East early next month. He is due to visit Egypt, Israel, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia between April 3 and 8.
This speculation is all the livelier because Mr. Haig already has proved more flexible than anticipated on two issues on which the administration had seemed to take absolute stands at the time of the presidential transition two months ago. These issues are El Salvador and talks with the Soviets on the control of theater nuclear weapons in Europe.
If Haig comes back from the Middle East convinced that an early move must be made on the Palestinian issue, Saudi Arabia may well have played as key a role as a frustrated Egyptian President Sadat in the persuasion. This is because the Saudis, while exercised (like Haig) by the Soviet threat to the Gulf and the Middle East, see the Palestinians as the door through which Moscow can most easily get into the area -- if the embittered Palestinians' longstanding grievances are not met.
Should Haig decide that the Palestinian issue must be brought forward on the burner, the challenge will be to find some way to break the deadlock that has, in effect, brought to a halt the Camp David process as it affects a wider Arab-Israeli settlement beyond the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty.
Important points to be decided are:
* Has Camp David run its course? If it has, what is the alternative?
* How can the Palestinians be brought into any renewed talks on the future of the currently Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip? (Camp David provided for that, but the Palestinians have so far balked.) If there is to be Palestinian participation, must it be through the Palestinian Liberation Organization?
* Is a way offered around this impasse by the "Jordanian option" -- persuading King Hussein of Jordan to join thetalks to represent Palestinian interests. Israel's likely next Prime Minister, Labor Party leader Shimon Peres , and some members of the Reagan administration lean toward this option. Haig will be visiting Jordan -- but many US Arabists still think the Jordanian option is a nonstarter.
The impression that the new administration assumed office in no hurry to get the stalled Palestinian autonomy talks going again has been reinforced by its failure so far to appoint a successor to Sol Linowitz as US Middle East negotiator. Under the Carter administration, Mr. Linowitz had been the US representative -- in accordance with the Camp David agreements -- in the talks between Egypt and Israel.
But the fact is that whatever the new administration's intentions were (or are), it would have been obliged by Israeli domestic politics to postpone any fresh US initiative on the Palestinian issue until after the ISraeli general election June 30. And all the more so, since the general expectation is that incumbent Prime Minister Menachem Begin will be ousted at the polls and replaced by Mr. Peres.
(There are some Middle East hands, incidentally, who question whether the more flexible Peres would turn out to be an easier and more effective negotiator than the hardline Begin. The latter has usually shown himself decisive -- even when stonewalling. If Peres became prime minister with only a narrow majority, he might have problems about making concessions with Begin breathing down his neck as leader of the opposition.)
The choice of Saudi Arabia and Jordan to be the only other two countries (besides Egypt and Israel) on Haig's itinerary is interesting. Syria, which Henry Kissinger included on his itineraries in his days of Middle East shuttling , is out of play -- partly because of Syrian President Assad's current shaky isolation in the Arab world. But Haig's visit to Saudi Arabia is confirmation of the latter's importance in US strategic thinking for the entire Southwest Asian region. It has no big army, but it has oil, petrodollars, and a key geographic location on the Gulf.
If Saudi Arabia is a "must" for the secretary of state on his forthcoming journey, the visit to Jordan is more exploratory. The Jordanian option, as presently understood, may be a vain hope. But Jordan will inevitably at some point have to be brought into any negotiation on the Palestinians.
If Haig can discover what might make both Jordan and Saudi Arabia at this stage more sympathetic toward the US peace effort launched at Camp David, that would a good start fo r him.