''Arab boycott'' used to mean boycott of Israel. Now some Arabs are boycotting an Arab summit meeting - and appearing to boycott peace in the process. The task of salvaging a constructive outcome falls to those who are not boycotting the Arab League conference that starts today in Morocco.
Such a possibility should not be written off entirely. After all, the boycotting heads of state are the radical leaders of Libya and Iraq, whose presence would not have been likely to foster reasonable discussion of the Saudi peace plan they are protesting. The 18 other countries at least are in the unusual position of having such a plan on the agenda. And the rich and influential Saudis have every reason to: first, demonstrate leadership among the Arabs by obtaining unprecedented agreement on a mutual Middle East strategy; and , second, further the Saudi reputation for moderation in the West, which has shown unexpected welcome to parts of a plan that seemed to have sunk without trace when first floated last summer.
To place the eight-point plan on the summit program in the face of splits in the league was an achievement in itself. These splits are expected to lead to efforts to amend it. Better to see it set aside for another day than to have it emerge in a form to deny all possibility of the present version's Western welcomes, including the very cautious one by Israel's key supporter, the United States.
The danger lies in a stress on demands such as an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital to the exclusion of the most conciliatory point: recognition of the right of all states in the region to live in peace. This has been seized on as implied Arab recognition of Israel's right to exist, something the Palestine Liberation Organization has not yet overtly acknowledged.
Indeed, though it seems unlikely at a divided summit such as this, the Saudis ought to take a step beyond implication: actually letting the name Israel pass their lips in specifying it as one of the states with a right to live in peace. Is this really too much to ask? Americans might consider it one Saudi return on AWACS, from which many so far don't see any dividends. But it is called for in terms of Mideast stability whatever Americans think.
It is often said that Israel ought to take such steps as withdrawal from illegal settlements in order to help bring Arab opinion around. But, as the Monitor reported from Jerusalem last week, the anxieties of Israelis in the face of peace process uncertainties are a great and unifying force. It is hardly unreasonable to call on the Arabs, for their part, to take steps to bring Israeli opinion around by offering some assurances of Israel's security.
As it is, Israel is faced with apparent contradictions of Camp David even by the European nations willing to provide troops for a peacekeeping force when Israel leaves the Sinai next year under the Camp David accords. Not that the European views may not provide grist for future negotiation. But the parts of the Camp David process already settled deserve to be implemented without unnecessary diversions. These known quantities must not be diminished while the unknown quantity of Arab peace efforts is awaited.