THE remarkable thing about the Middle East is that King Hussein's peace initiative is still alive, and it can be livelier in the wake of the Geneva summit. The King launched the move way back in February. He has been beavering away at it ever since. The odds seemed to be heavily against him from the beginning. Collapse has been predicted repeatedly.
The Achille Lauro hijacking was widely assumed to be the end of it. So have various other kidnappings and bombings. But Achille Lauro actually helped.
It helped by undermining Yasser Arafat's prestige in the Arab community. It was sufficiently undermined that King Hussein felt free to start talking about a peace conference without any delegates from the PLO. Instead of PLO members, there would be Palestinians from the West Bank Arab community acceptable to the Israelis.
This change in the position of Mr. Arafat helped to clear the road, because the Likud party in Israel would bring down the coalition government rather than allow Prime Minister Shimon Peres to negotiate with the PLO, or with any PLO person even associated with a conference.
One of the ugliest (by Israeli standards) in the series of charges Ariel Sharon tossed at the Prime Minister was that Mr. Peres was willing to negotiate with the PLO. It nearly brought down the government. Peres demanded a retraction before withdrawing his decision to dismiss Mr. Sharon from the Cabinet.
That Sharon affair has now been smoothed over. The Israeli Cabinet did not fall. The Likud party members did not feel themselves strong enough to risk precipitating an election over the issue of whether Mr. Peres could go on exploring with King Hussein ways and means of getting a conference under way.
Meanwhile, King Hussein has had further talks with the Saudis, with Egypt, and, most important, with Syria. To go further down the peace road he must clear every step with all of these. The Saudis provide much of his revenue. The Egyptians are vitally interested in anything to do with Israel. Syria is still at war with Israel and has the physical ability to destroy King Hussein, were he to do anything that Syria regarded as damaging to its interests. Israel is in occupation of a strip of Syrian land kno wn as the Golan Heights. Syria will not tolerate a peace settlement that ignores Syria's claim to the Golan Heights.
King Hussein has also had private talks with Mr. Peres. These talks have sketched out the ways by which Israel and Jordan may someday be able to meet at a conference table. In theory, the problem of Palestinian representation is now resolved.
Mr. Peres has indicated he has no objection to a general conference at which the Soviets might be present, along, of course, with the United States. Syria and Egypt would also have to be represented.
That is where matters stand at the moment. The road to a conference is not yet open, but it is more nearly open than at any time since Camp David. The next step is up to the US and the Soviet Union. The question is whether the Geneva summit talks will make a difference.
Does Moscow really want peace in the Middle East?
Troubled waters usually mean opportunities for Moscow. So long as the Arabs are at war with Israel, some of the Arabs are bound to turn to Moscow for help against Israel. Arab need for Soviet help would disappear if a real peace should break out.
There might be compensation in other areas. An actual helping hand by Moscow toward peace in the Middle East, including reopened diplomatic relations between Israel and Moscow, would remove a major cause of strain in US-Soviet relations. Easier access to American technology could be Moscow's compensation for stability in the Middle East.
This is the sort of thing diplomats talk about and arrange informally and privately. Probably we will not know whether Geneva involved such arrangements unless they happen. If they do, King Hussein's efforts to keep his peace initiative going will not have been in vain.