WASHINGTON — THE Bush administration will have some early tests on the Arab-Israeli peace process. ``They don't have to launch any big initiatives or even name a special envoy in the near future,'' a ranking United States specialist says. ``But, the administration has to work so that the momentum and psychological impact of the US-PLO dialogue not be dissipated in destructive flailing by both sides.''
Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir plans to visit Washington in March and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak wants an early visit.
The new US team also has to think about where to take the US-PLO dialogue. Initial exchanges have focused on terrorism and generalities about the peace process. Former Secretary of State George Shultz consciously left open for his successor the options of how often to meet and what strategy to pursue.
PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat has reportedly accepted an invitation to address a conference of Arab-Americans in April. If Arafat actually seeks a US visa, the administration will have to decide whether to grant it and how to treat any requests for meetings.
``It all comes back to an old adage,'' says an adviser on the Mideast to several administrations. ``If you're not prepared to use them, they will use you. And, in this case, they'll try to use you even if you are prepared.''
US specialists say the US shouldn't let others set the agenda for the visits. The consistent advice from those queried is that the new team continue to hammer away at Israelis, Palestinians, and Arab states with one basic point - the key audience is not in Washington, rather it's the other parties in this dispute.
No one thinks this will be easy. ``On the ground,'' says the Middle East adviser, ``neither side is convinced that the benefits of violence are exhausted.'' And, the psychological gap is immense, says a senior official.
The role for the new administration, adds a ranking specialist, may be largely in providing a ``reality check'' for the parties, reminding them again and again when their proposals and actions are unrealistic.
The immediate US message for the Palestinians, says an experienced US specialist, is to focus on the Israeli audience ``and make them feel secure enough to talk.''
``Arafat is just spinning his wheels going around Europe and pressing for an international conference,'' he says. ``The Europeans aren't going to get Israel to the negotiating table. He has to make gestures, including cooling things down on the West Bank, which will build confidence.''
US officials recognize this won't be easy for Arafat. But, they say, such gestures are part of the responsibility that comes with the new role Arafat is trying to play.
THIS also holds for what the PLO leader says, they add. Washington made a particular point of tracking down and publicizing last week the exact text of a public threat by Arafat against moderate Palestinians who might call for an end to the intifadah (uprising.)
``Arafat has to realize he's playing in the big leagues now,'' says a ranking US diplomat. ``He can't say one thing in Arabic and then try to schmooze with us in English. We're watching all he says and does closely. When he makes statements, like his recent threat, it energizes those who want nothing to do with him.''
Washington is also telling Israel to focus its efforts on the Palestinians and its neighbors. According to well-informed Israeli sources, a top adviser to Mr. Shamir returned home from Washington recently with the clear message that Israel should come up with a workable initiative aimed at the Palestinians.
US officials say the current debate in Israel over rising fatalities among Palestinian demonstrators and how the military should handle the intifadah only highlights the need for Israel to move. ``We're seeing in public now what our [diplomatic] cables and intelligence reports have been saying for a long time,'' says a US official, ``The status quo is not in Israel's interest. The Army doesn't like this situation and wants a political solution.''
Shamir has apparently accepted at least part of the message. ``The Israelis have finally understood that they have to get off the dime,'' says a US Israel-watcher, but the question is whether ``what they judge to be a big step is big enough for anyone else.''
Shamir will come to Washington looking for a ``renewal of vows'' and testing what it will take to get the US and Israel back into a ``joint exercise'' on the peace process, says a long-time peace process specialist.
``Back in the Carter years,'' adds a well-placed official, ``Prime Minister Begin came here with an autonomy plan, got Carter to offer a few changes, and then went home and told his public all was well because the US was on board. We can't let that happen this time. Shamir needs to convince the Palestinians, not us.''
Washington is giving a similar message to Egypt and other Arab states. The US sees no use in pushing for an international peace conference without a good deal of confidence building first, the senior official says.