The United States and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) have joined in tacit, perhaps unwitting, entente at the United Nations, sparking hopes among some Arab diplomats of revived efforts to bring the PLO into the Middle East negotiating process.
Other diplomats, Arab and Western, are not so sure. They suspect Washington's surprise support March 1 for a UN Security Council condemnation of Israeli settlement policy may simply be part of a US bid to pressure Israel.
Israeli officials, to the consternation of their American and Egyptian negotiating partners, have been de-emphasizing the importance of a May "target date" for agreement on a formula for Palestinian autonomy.
Such pressure tactics have tended to backfire in the past -- triggering something of a wagons-in-a-circle phenomenon inside Israel, which adhors PLO violence and generally fears mounting PLO influence in the international arena.
Whether, or how widely, that trend has extended to the United States could become clearer this month.
US and Arab efforts to produce a compromise UN Middle East resolution facilitating formal ties between Washington and the PLO collapsed last summer, with the resignation of US Ambassador to the UN Andrew Young following unauthorized contacts with a PLO official. UN officials said debate on such a resolution is expected to resume sometime in March.
Not surprisingly, reports from Israel March 2 spoke of deep official concern over the latest hint of possible conciliation between the US and the PLO.
The "hint," Arab diplomats maintain, came in Washington's endorsement of the Security Council resolution on Israeli settlement. US opposition to settlements was nothing new. But in the past, Washington had abstained on such UN resolutions.
Facilitating the US "yea" vote, diplomats said, was something of an unofficial entente between the Americans and the PLO. Washington, for its part, voted for the resolution. The PLO, in turn, joined an Arab consensus to halt efforts to toughen the wording of the resolution -- a move that virtually would have obligated the US to cast its familiar abstention vote.
One Gulf diplomat said that during informal Arab consultations on the resolution, "The PLO was actually more moderate than some other Arab parties, such as Jordan."
American support of the UN condemnation of Israeli settlement came as Europe, particularly Britain, was weighing a possible "supplement" to the famed UN Resolution 242 of 1967 as a means of involving the PLO in the negotiating process.
British diplomats, in a reading seconded by many US officials, feel that a solution of the Palestinian issue has become imperative amid Western efforts to align Middle Eastern states against widening Soviet influence. Relations between Washington and even moderate Arab states have long been clouded by a perceived US slant in favor of Israel in the Middle East conflict.
The main lines of an eventual understanding between the Americans and the PLO have been clear for at least several years: a swap of US support for Palestinian political demands, for at least tacit PLO recognition as Israel's right to a secure existence.
The main obstacles on both sides, many diplomats argue, may be as much political as substantive.
PLO leader Yasser Arafat, a politician with a guerrilla's automatic caution, wants to assure that any compromise will lead to official recognition of his organization by Washington and to a direct PLO negotiating role.
The Americans, meanwhile, ask themselves whether direct contact with the mainstream Palestinian organization would be worth the virtually certain downturn in US- Israeli relations. Israeli backlash could all but doom US hopes for an early "overall" Middle East settlement.
"He [President Carter] is clearly upset over escalating Israeli settlement in the [occupied] West Bank," commented one diplomat. "He would also like to strengthen US relations with the Arab world . . . implying at least some sign of openness toward the Arab view of the Palestinian conflict."
Yet more than a few diplomats doubt President Carter will energetically activate efforts toward conciliation with the PLO -- at least until, or unless, he is safely re-elected.