What the President really said

By , David D. Newsom, former US under secretary of state for political affairs, is associate dean and director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University.

One of the problems with any major initiative in the field of foreign affairs is that the finely tuned nuances of the original become seriously blurred in the ensuing public discussion.

This is particularly true in any initiative relating to an area of high emotional tension such as the Middle East.

President Reagan's speech of Sept. 1 was a carefully calculated effort to start a process, one which it was hoped would lead once more to serious negotiations on basic issues between Israel and the Arabs.

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Departing in one significant way from previous United States initiatives, the speech responded to the question put often to US diplomats over recent decades, ''What is the United States position on a Palestine entity?''

There is always a risk in seeking to answer a question of this kind. Ultimately it is a question to be answered by those in the area who must be the ultimate arbiters. When an outside power, such as the US, sets forth a position the danger is that the parties in the area will concentrate on attacking the statement of the outsider rather than considering proposals of their own. For many years, US administrations resisted a formal position on a future Palestinian entity, although the trend of American thinking against an independent state has long been clear.

It is important, however, to realize how the President answered the question. As the various parties have sought to interpret the President's speech his answer has become blurred. The implication is that the President has put forward an ''American plan'' to be adopted or rejected. The President's interaction, on the contrary, was to start a process which would lead to serious negotiations.

Nowhere in the speech was the word ''plan'' mentioned. The words were ''groundwork,'' ''policy,'' ''principles,'' ''position.'' While the President refers to his ''proposals,'' the most frequent word in the speech is ''negotiation.'' The key is in the third of the ''general principles'' of the ''talking points'' sent to governments, ''We can offer guarantees on the position we will adopt in negotiations. We will not be able, however, to guarantee in advance the results of these negotations.''

The President's speech assumes that the US will, in some fashion, be a party to future negotiations as it has been in every negotiation in the area to this point. His speech was intended to state what the instructions will be to the US participants in any such discussions. The speech makes it clear that the President expects that, as in any negotiation, there will be adjustments among the parties and the final shape of a solution may be different from the US position.

Nothing can be achieved until negotiations start. Initial soundings are undoubtedly being taken in the region and in various discussions which the Secretary of State is having with Foreign Ministers in New York. The Arab countries have agreed, at Fez, to send delegations to principal capitals to discuss the Fez conclusions. When this happens, it will be another opportunity to examine how discussions can be started.

The President's initiative has already produced some of the results for which he and his advisers hoped. The Arabs at Fez did not go as far as the US might have wished in acknowledging the existence of Israel, but in Arab terms the results were remarkable. All of the Arab states present agreed on a response. The Reagan initiative was not attacked.

In Israel, clearly, the President's plan has started the kind of internal debate essential before a democracy can make hard choices. There are parallel debates taking place in the US.

Inevitably, a measure of public debate must follow a major initiative of this kind. Such a debate is an acknowledgement of the seriousness and importance of the initiative. Ultimately that debate must give way to the kind of serious confidential round-the-clock effort seen in the Rhodes talks, the Kissinger shuttles, and Camp David. To prepare the way for such talks was certainly one of the objectives of the President's initiative.

Steps toward peace in the Middle East come, tragically, after upheavals. They come when the major parties conclude that there is no real alternative if their respective interests are to be preserved. The circumstances following the recent events in Lebanon may represent another such opportunity. The President has once more staked out the ''groundwork.'' It would be tragic if public debates over ''plans'' would obscure the real objective: to get genuine negotiations on a settlement moving among the various parties thrown together in this complex cauldron.

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