There has been movement once more in the Middle East. As always, in this closely watched area, new developments raise speculation about more positive progress toward a substantial peace.
The focus this past week has been on two events.
King Hussein of Jordan, without waiting for the approval of other Arab states , restored ties to Egypt.
Shimon Peres, the new prime minister of Israel, visited Washington and reportedly raised the possibility of United States help in disengaging the Israeli forces from southern Lebanon. The question is whether either or both of these events fundamentally lowers obstacles to a wider stability.
The Middle East is like a town hit by an earthquake. The buildings are standing, but unsteady. Aftershocks shift the ground. Some of the buildings may, thereafter, lean in a different direction, but they are still unsafe and the town still far from being rebuilt. Only the prospect of more solid ground will lead to new construction.
Hussein's move toward Egypt represents the beginning of a new alignment of conservative states. It is a courageous move on the King's part and helps Egypt break its post-Camp David isolation. It is welcomed by the United States. It does not, however, fundamentally alter Hussein's view toward negotiations with Israel. It is likely, further, to make the Syrians, who have bitterly attacked the King's move, even less willing to conclude any public accord with Israel on withdrawal from Lebanon.
Israel desperately wants to withdraw from Lebanon. Pressures for such action mount, brought on by the serious economic situation and the continued terrorist attacks against Israeli forces. The new Israeli government has stated it will no longer require a simultaneous withdrawal of Syrian forces or even a formal agreement with Syria. The Israelis have spoken, also, of a possible withdrawal from the Bekaa Valley.
Whatever the basis for withdrawal, the Israelis will insist on conditions that will protect their northern cities from rocket attacks and infiltration. They are firm on the preservation of the Israeli-trained Christian militia in the south. They are talking once more of an expanded role for the United Nations forces in the area.
An expanded UN role seems a logical part of a solution, yet the Security Council action necessary to achieve it inevitably brings the Soviet Union into the picture. Last Friday the Security Council voted to extend the mandate of the United Nations forces in southern Lebanon for six months; the Soviet Union and the Ukraine abstained. How these two votes would be cast on a resolution expanding and possibly changing the UNIFIL role would undoubtedly depend on the Syrian attitude.
Syria, still the key to stability in Lebanon, will have at least two considerations: its role in Lebanon and its posture in intra-Arab politics. President Assad clearly feels he now has the upper hand over the Israelis. He is not likely to agree formally to the preservation of the Christian militia in southern Lebanon or to appear to agree to any arrangement with Israel that would bring charges of ''betrayal'' from militant Arab circles. He might impose other conditions difficult for the Israelis to accept such as a ban on Israeli overflights of Lebanon, but he may well welcome an Israeli withdrawal that would make his overall task in Lebanon easier.
Despite these obstacles, the best hope for some progress may lie in some tacit, unwritten Israeli-Syrian understanding by which the Israeli forces withdraw from Lebanon.
The United States, badly burned in the region, is not likely to play a strong role. The Arabs will probably sit by or criticize. Such a step would not necessarily bring wider peace moves into play, but an Israeli withdrawal with Syrian acquiescence in the arrangements would be an important contribution to stability.
The rebuilding of a shaken town does not begin until the ground is firm enough for new construction. Clearly the Israelis and the Syrians are exploring whether that time has come in Lebanon.