US Secretary of State George Shultz did a quick tour of the Middle East over last weekend. He visited Egypt, Israel, and Jordan. His purpose was to find out whether there is any use attempting to reopen peace talks between Israel and its Arab neighbors. He left empty handed. He left empty handed because the two essential preconditions for useful talks, which seemed briefly to exist back in January when all this really began, have been eroded.
The first precondition is effective Washington leverage on Israel. The second is a government in Israel both willing and politically capable of making peace with the Arabs.
The first precondition seemed to exist in January. President Reagan had been reelected by a landslide. Israel was in a state of economic disaster. Only the prospect of massive United States aid could save it from literal bankruptcy. The State Department and White House were prepared to hold back on aid as a means of exerting leverage. On Jan. 30 the State Department suspended arms sales to the Middle East pending a ``comprehensive review of our security interests and our strategy in the area.'' On the same day President Reagan sidestepped an Israeli request for an additional $800 million in emergency aid to Israel.
The second precondition also seemed to exist. Shimon Peres had become prime minister of Israel on Sept. 14, 1984. He was widely believed to favor making peace with the Arabs. He had come to office in the wake of collapse of both the Menachem Begin government and the Begin policy of territorial expansion.
By February of this year Mr. Peres had done better as prime minister than most had expected. He was gaining in popular approval and popular support. In the Arab capitals it was widely believed, or at least hoped, that a man of peace was in power in Israel. They hoped that he might be both willing and politically able to make peace.
In effect, Secretary Shultz went to the Middle East over last weekend at the request of the Arabs who have been urging him ever since January to explore the possibility of the unusual conjunction of these two preconditions for peace -- an Israeli government both willing and politically able to make peace and the ability of a government in Washington to use economic leverage on Israel toward the same end.
The Arab governments have wanted the possibilities explored and have themselves done what they could to get ready to play their assigned role in a new peace effort. The main action was to obtain agreement from Yasser Arafat for a joint Jordanian-Palestinian negotiating team which would not include actual members of the PLO.
In theory something might have come of all this had it been possible to push along the peace road faster. But we are now at mid-May. Three months have passed since the opportunity seemed promising. During those three months both preconditions to success have been eroded.
In Washington the ability of the Reagan administration to apply economic leverage to Israel has vanished. The pro-Israel lobby has Congress under control. It is axiomatic on Capitol Hill that Israel will get what aid it wants.
Any residual ability President Reagan had to hold back money for Israel before his journey to Bitburg, West Germany, was finally washed out by Bitburg.
As for the other precondition. Most Western diplomats think that Prime Minister Peres sincerely wants peace with the Arabs and would negotiate it tomorrow on the basis of UN Resolution 242 (trading territory for recognition of Israel) if he could. But his political ability has eroded since January.
It is to be noted that before Mr. Shultz went to the Middle East last Friday it was believed that agreement was possible on a formula for including Palestinians in a peace delegation. In Tel Aviv over the weekend Mr. Shultz found the Israelis insisted, in effect, on a veto on the personnel of the Arab delegation.
Technically, the Shultz mission broke down over the matter of names on the Arab delegation list. In fact they broke down because President Reagan no longer has effective economic leverage over Israel (Congress would overrule him) and because the Likud Party holds a veto over Mr. Peres. They would wreck his coalition government if he tried to make peace.