CURRENT violence in the West Bank and Gaza is proof that when the peace process does not move forward, events in the Middle East move backward, toward conflict. No peace talks have occurred in over six years. Fortunately, recent disturbances have refocused world attention on the region, and energized United States peace efforts. The situation has changed markedly in recent months. The Arab summit in November concentrated on the Iran-Iraq war, not the Arab-Israeli dispute. The December Reagan-Gorbachev summit barely touched on the Middle East.
Such neglect contributed to an explosion of frustration among the 1.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza last December. The protests in Gaza were ignited when four Palestinians were killed by an Israeli truck driver; the rumor spread that the incident was revenge for the killing of an Israeli settler. Demonstrations first swept Gaza, then the West Bank. Youths who have grown up during the 20 years of Israeli occupation have led the Palestinian uprising. Most protests have been spontaneous. Radical Islamic groups and the Palestine Liberation Organization have tried to exploit them.
The violence has helped to activate US diplomacy. Secretary of State George Shultz is just back from his third trip to the Middle East since January. There have been high-level talks with the Soviets. The US wants to focus on substance, but procedural issues still dominate talks.
The new US peace initiative builds on old approaches and past achievements. It outlines three steps: an international conference; direct talks between Israel and a Jordanian-Palestinian delegation on a transition period of self-rule for the territories; and talks between Israel and a Jordanian-Palestinian delegation on the final status of the West Bank and Gaza.
Under the US proposal, an international conference would begin by May 1. Mr. Shultz has said that the Arabs require a properly structured conference to launch negotiations. The gathering would be open to the five permanent Security Council members and to parties to the conflict which accept United Nations Resolutions 242 and 338 and renounce terrorism. The conference could receive reports on direct bilateral talks but could not impose solutions or veto agreements.
Direct talks between Israel and a Jordanian-Palestinian delegation on transitional arrangements in the territories would begin within two weeks of the conference and finish by year's end.
Direct talks between the same parties on the final status of the West Bank would begin before the end of 1988. The US argues that direct, bilateral talks between Israel and its neighbors are the way to achieve peace. This stage of negotiations may also include direct talks between Israel and Syria and between Israel and Lebanon, and talks on the status of Jerusalem.
Each party has problems with the US plan. Syria wants all power to reside in an international conference. The PLO wants a separate place at the table. Jordan is fearful that a transition regime for the West Bank and Gaza would last indefinitely. Israel is divided: Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir opposes an international conference and short transition regime; Foreign Minister Shimon Peres supports US efforts. The strongest support for the US proposal comes from Egypt.
Serious questions remain. Is the timetable realistic in the light of coming US and Israeli elections? Who will speak for the Palestinians, and can Palestinians be found who are prepared to coexist with Israel? How will elections in the West Bank and Gaza be conducted? What will be the rights of Jewish settlers there? Can the Soviets play a constructive role?
Difficult choices are necessary if peace is to be achieved. The Palestinians and the PLO will have to participate in a Jordanian delegation and accept less than statehood if they want greater self-rule. Jordan will have to enter direct talks without knowing the precise outcome of exchanging peace for land. If it wants the return of the Golan Heights, Syria will have to talk directly to Israel and accept peace. Israel must realize that the status quo is untenable, that it will no longer be a Jewish or a democratic state if it keeps the populous West Bank and Gaza.
After a long lull, American leadership in Middle East peace efforts is welcome. The US cannot dictate terms of a settlement, but it can set forth a vision of how security and self-determination can be achieved, how human rights can be protected and economic growth promoted.
Parties are rethinking old positions. They sense that it is time to negotiate. Yet they argue about the shape of the table and who will sit with whom.
The US proposal offers a way out from the current violence in the Middle East. The need to go forward is urgent; the alternative is escalating conflict.
Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D) of Indiana is ranking Democrat on the Committee on Foreign Affairs and chairman of its Subcommittee on Europe and the Middle East.