Pushing the Mideast peace process

THE fresh signs of interest from both Arabs and Israelis in getting serious Middle East peace talks under way are heartening. The practical obstacles to an international peace conference, as proposed by Jordan, remain enormous. But enough determination could make the difference. It is a fragile business which deserves the strong support of the US as an interested third party. The conference proposal has split Israel's Likud-Labor coalition government straight down the middle:

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, who heads the more liberal Labor Party, has taken the lead in pushing for a conference. He threatens to topple the Israeli government if it does not acquiesce.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, whose Likud bloc is concerned that a conference could force a return of some of the occupied territories which conservatives vow to retain, has reluctantly put the topic on the agenda of his decisionmaking ``inner cabinet'' May 11.

Skeptics say that Mr. Peres, who plans to talk with Reagan administration officials in Washington May 13, is looking for an easy excuse to call for early elections and campaign on an agenda favorable to his Labor Party. We prefer to take him at his word - that he sees an unprecedented opportunity for peace. Certainly the pressure he is now exerting on the government could prove constructive. It can only help if the world gets a clearer understanding as to how Israelis themselves feel. An election may be necessary anyway before Israel actually takes part in any such global conference.

Washington used to side with the Likud preference for direct bilateral talks, which Arabs say would leave them vulnerable to strong criticism from other Arab countries. More recently, under strong pressure from Jordan, the US has given its qualified endorsement to the conference idea. Commendably, President Reagan last month urged Israeli Prime Minister Shamir not to pass up ``this historic opportunity'' to pursue peace talks.

Who would participate in a Middle East peace conference remains one of the hottest topics of debate. Jordan's King Hussein wants to include all five permanent United Nations Security Council members. Israel says the Soviet Union and China should take part only if they first establish diplomatic ties with Israel.

Israel also opposes Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) participation. Mr. Peres appears to have drawn considerable encouragement from Jordanian Prime Minister Zaid Rifa's recent comments on a joint PLO-Jordanian delegation. Mr. Rifa urges the PLO first to renounce terrorism and recognize Israel's existence in exchange for the return of occupied Arab territories. The PLO's unwillingness to date to take either step has encouraged speculation that Jordan might accept a PLO substitute. Egypt's decision last week to close PLO offices there, King Hussein's well-publicized spat with the PLO, and the leftward shift of a more united PLO at the recent Algiers conference have increased such speculation.

Yet the PLO is still recognized by all Arab nations as the sole official representative of the Palestinians. Any delegation will need the PLO's approval or support.

Clearly, shared sacrifices and new determination are required if the conference idea is to take shape. The Reagan administration has reservations about the concept, but peace in the Middle East, as the Camp David accords clearly showed, requires a strong mediator. Washington should make a genuine commitment and assume that role.

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