SECRETARY of State George P. Shultz would have preferred to skip Tel Aviv on his way to Vienna. That preference has partly to do with Reagan administration priorities: In Vienna Mr. Shultz is meeting with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei A. Gromyko, ostensibly to arrange a meeting between their superpower bosses in New York. But there were other factors. Mr. Shultz in part went to Israel to absorb the heat for President Reagan's visit to the Bitburg cemetery in West Germany where Nazi SS troops were buried. Despite diligent efforts of envoy Richard Murphy to prepare the way, Shultz has not yet been able to break the deadlock over Palestinian representation in a new round of talks promoted by Jordan and Egypt.
Instead of positive headlines out of the region, the administration finds itself the target of a Senate inquiry into a CIA ``anti-terrorist'' program in the Middle East -- an involvement that somehow misfired in a car-bomb blast in Lebanon last March, in which more than 80 persons were killed during an attempt to kill a suspected terrorist leader, who nonetheless escaped. One recalls Secretary Shultz's earlier disturbing warnings that pre-emptive strikes might have to be used to counter terrorist activities. The potential damage to the Reagan administration from disclosures about such activities cannot yet be assessed. It was widely surmised that the US might be training teams of foreign personnel in the dark arts of terrorism to assist on the American side. The Washington Post reports that President Reagan indeed approved such a plan last year.
A defective anti-terrorist program is hardly a positive Middle East policy. After the debacle of the US Marine presence in Lebanon, the risks of a fight-fire-with-fire counterterrorist program in that anarchic land should have been self-evident. It reflects the frustrating absence of concrete American policy gains in the region.
This is the fifth year of Reagan administration aegis over American-Middle East affairs. By next summer, the next presidential cycle will be under way. If the President wants to get something in the works in the Middle East, he must do so now.
The results of this week's elections in the Histadrut, Israel's giant labor federation, should be encouraging for those who want to see that country's power-sharing experiment work well enough to make a peace settlement possible. It was a personal victory for Prime Minister Shimon Peres, head of the Labor Party, and for Yisrael Kessar, secretary general of the labor federation. Mr. Peres has been leading Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who is set to replace Peres as prime minister midway through the 50-month life of the government, in popularity polls by a wide margin. It could be that Shamir, on taking the helm of government, would quickly begin to reverse that margin. But Peres has been able to make the patchwork government work well enough make a start toward the strength he would need to bring Israel through a peace negotiation on the occupied Palestinian territories. But he is still far from a commanding political position. The need to impose economic austerity measures on the public, and to secure relations with Egypt, lie before him.
On the key current issue blocking talks, Peres would consider having Palestinian National Council representation if they were not members of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Shamir rejects both PNC and PLO presence at talks. Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader most involved in the prospective new round, insists on PLO presence. Diplomacy's job is to unwind such snarls.
The Shultz entourage looks ahead to Jordan King Hussein's visit to Washington later this month. One can only hope the King does not return as disappointed as President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt on a similar recent trip to the home of the Camp David Accords.