ALTHOUGH Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir has made clear his opposition to the Shultz Middle East peace plan, the secretary of state plans to leave this week for yet another diplomatic circuit of the region in an effort to gain acceptance of his ideas. As has been the case since George Shultz first proposed his plan, the pessimists are out in force. Before the secretary's last trip to the region, Henry Kissinger warned darkly about the multitude of pitfalls in the new peace process.
``The United States must not delude itself,'' he stated, adding that ``the idyllic picture of an international conference proceeding to a conclusion through a give-and-take in bilateral negotiations is a mirage. Deadlock is the almost certain result of direct talks....''
The truth of the matter is that there is never an ideal time to seek peace in the Middle East. Having recently visited that area, however, and met with many of the leaders Mr. Shultz has conferred with, I can cite several reasons that the naysayers may well be proved wrong. In deciding to take on this mission, Shultz has certainly set himself a formidable task. But a number of factors make this a fairly promising time to seek peace.
First, one must recognize the profound impact of the Iran-Iraq war on Middle Eastern politics. It is the primary concern of Arab leaders in the region. They are deeply fearful about the potential spread of the conflict elsewhere in the Gulf region, and feel threatened by the religious extremism and hegemonic designs of the Khomeini regime. They are eager to focus their collective energy on containing the threat posed by that war. Indicative of this desire was last year's decision to welcome Egypt back into the Arab fold, despite its separate peace with Israel.
To turn fully their attention to the Iran-Iraq conflict, these leaders are especially eager to find an effective, permanent, negotiated solution for the occupied territories, and thus are listening closely to Shultz's proposals.
Second, three months of violent demonstrations in the occupied territories have brought to the Israelis' full attention the demographic time bomb facing their country. The youthful Palestinian stone-throwers are the vanguard of the population explosion that, early in the next century, will leave Jews a minority in Gaza, the West Bank, and Israel itself. If the military occupation goes on without a political solution, the immature rioters may grow into embittered adults with weapons more lethal than stones.
Now is the time to show the young Palestinians that diplomacy and negotiation can lead to the solution that violence and terrorism have never achieved. The burgeoning population of the occupied territories will become not only more numerous but more angry, unless all parties seize this moment as Shultz is urging them to do. Of course, among those seizing the moment must be Palestinian leaders who, one hopes, will give up their extremely ill-advised boycott of the Shultz initiative.
Third, Israel is now in a position to benefit politically from US leadership. The divided coalition government reflects a nation bitterly split. Roughly half the people oppose giving up any of ``Greater Israel'' as part of negotiations, while the other half favors some kind of land-for-peace arrangement. The Shultz plan, presented by an outside party concerned for Israel's well-being, offers an opportunity for members of both sides to coalesce behind a proposal that offers a path out of deadlock.
Finally, many of the current leaders in the Arab countries are receptive to US involvement. They are men with whom we can work.
In the case of President Hosni Mubarak, there is enthusiasm for the secretary of state's involvement. King Hussein, although lukewarm at best toward Shultz's ideas, has a record of support for peace negotiations, and has shown a willingness to take risks for peace. Given the violence of Middle Eastern politics, we cannot assume that we will always have such willing Arab partners.
Shultz deserves credit and encouragement in his efforts. When will there be a more propitious moment to pursue peace?
John H. Chafee (R) is a US senator from Rhode Island.