Jerusalem — ``Low key'' is the term both Israeli and American officials are using to describe the latest trip to the Middle East by United States envoy Richard Murphy. ``Everybody has been making extraordinary efforts not to build up expectations,'' said an American who asked not to be identified.
The developments prompting the visit, Arab and American sources say, include Yitzhak Shamir's return to Israel's premiership in October; revelations about US arms sales to Iran; the planned Jan. 26 Islamic Conference summit in Kuwait; and Egypt's efforts to reconcile Jordan and the Palestine Liberation Organization.
``The Irangate affair has been deeply embarrassing to moderate Arab regimes such as Egypt and Jordan,'' one diplomat said. ``The United States wants to give [Egypt's] President [Hosni] Mubarak and [Jordan's King] Hussein something to go to the Islamic conference with, some indication of continued American interest in a peace process.''
Both Jordan and Egypt have supported Iraq in the six-year Iran-Iraq war. And both nations' leaders have expressed anger over news that the US and Israel jointly supplied arms to Iran in an 18-month covert operation.
Mr. Murphy, the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern and Asian Affairs, and his aides arrived in Amman, Jordan, Tuesday. They are scheduled to visit senior Israeli officials Thursday. Murphy is also expected to see officials in Cairo next week.
Murphy has been the Reagan administration's point man in the region throughout 1985 and 1986, when then-Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres and King Hussein explored ways to reach a peace negotiating table.
Though American sources stressed that Murphy is bringing no new American ideas to his meetings with regional leaders, some moderate Arab leaders view the visit as a gesture by the Reagan administration that is still interested in pursuing peace initiatives in the region.
According to American sources, Murphy's visit is in the nature of a fact-finding tour. The Reagan administration is interested in finding out whether rapprochement between King Hussein and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat is indeed in the cards.
Murphy's last trip to the region was last fall, when Israel and Egypt were finishing negotiations to send their border dispute to international arbitration.
Egypt and Israel's agreement to send their dispute over Taba, a strip of land on the Sinai Peninsula, to arbitration and the subsequent summit meeting between Prime Minister Peres and President Mubarak are viewed in the region as the Reagan administration's two most concrete achievements in Middle East diplomacy.
But neither event seems to have furthered prospects for starting negotiations between Israel and a joint Jordanian-Palestinian team over the future of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Golan Heights.
It is generally agreed by diplomats in the region that King Hussein's 1985 effort to start negotiations between Israel and a joint Jordanian-Palestinian team ground to a halt in February 1986, when the King announced he was ending political coordination with the PLO.
Since then, no alternative negotiator for the Palestinians has emerged to take the PLO's place, and the organization is reestablishing itself militarily in Lebanon, from where it was driven by the Israeli Army in 1982.
Egyptian officials and some Palestinians have hinted that there may be some sort of reconciliation between Arafat and the King at the planned Islamic conference, which both are scheduled to attend.
It is unclear what effect, if any, a reconciliation between the PLO and Jordan would have on prospects for negotiations. Israel insists it will enter no negotiations with the PLO, which it views as a terrorist organization.
[Reuters reported Tuesday that Iran has formally asked the Islamic Conference Organization not to hold the summit in Kuwait. Iran said Kuwait's logistical support of Iraq and its proximity to fighting on the southern Gulf war fronts make it an unsafe host for the meeting.]