Key Arab oil regimes and their moderate oil-less ally, Jordan, are weighing a compromise Middle East peace proposal for late November -- should President Carter win a second term in the White House.
But harder-line Syria, increasingly isolated and shaken by internal unrest, is understood to be balking at the idea. The Syrians also seem to be leaning on Palestine Liberation Organization chief Yasser Arafat, key to any united Arab peace move, to stand tough.
What is now emerging is a new regional power equation following Egypt's separate peacemaking drive.
While Syria's regional power has eroded, longtime rival Iraq has increased its clout, forging an informal alliance with the more moderate Saudis and Jordanians by toning down its radical rhetoric.
The Saudis and Jordanians, diplomats and Beirut analysts say, appear the prime movers for a new "united" Arab peace strategy. Kuwait is also said to be on board. Iraq is seen as on board also, if only to take a slap at Syria.
As for Mr. Arafat, says one analyst close to the Palestinian leadership, "In his tradition, he will hedge bets until the last moment." So, in all likelihood, will the very Arabs now talking up a new peace approach.
But if all goes according to the moderates' wishes, an Arab summit planned for Amman, Jordan, shortly after the US elections would temper past public conditions for peace with Israel. This, of course, is conditional on President Carter winning re-election and clearly signaling a willingness to consider a shift in Mideast policy.
But if all goes according to the moderates' wishes -- if President Carter wins re-election and clearly signals willingness to consider a shift in Middle East policy -- an Arab summit planned for the Jordanian capital of Amman shortly after the US elections would temper past public conditions for eventual peace with Israel.
The details of a revised Arab position remain to be thrashed out. Saudi Crown Prince Fahd, effectively day-to-day ruler of the country for the infirm King Khalid, told a Beirut newspaper in mid-July he would be in contact with fellow Arab leaders to assure that the Amman summit "speaks with one voice."
Jordan plans extensive regional consultations toward the same aim, Arab diplomats say. If the moderates succeed, the summit would -- in a concession to US conditions for Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) participation in peace moves -- signal Arab openness to a negotiated Middle East settlement and eventual recognition of Israel's right to secure existence. At the same time this would be linked to traditional Arab demands for Israeli withdrawal from the territories occupied in the 1967 Middle East war, and recognition for the palestinians' right to self-determination.
Arab and US officials have danced around similar formulas at least several times in recent years. In each case the delicate diplomatic ballet has always gone awry, with Washington reasserting demands that the PLO explicitly accept UN Resolution 242 of 1967 as a price for participation in US-sponsored peace moves.
Resolution 242 indirectly recognizes Israel's right to exist, makes a nonspecific call for Israeli withdrawal from occupied Arab land, but treats the Palestinians as a mere "refugee" problem. The PLO has rejected this
One guiding assumption behind tentative Arab moves to revive the compromise approach, diplomats say, is that Mr. Carter has been building resentment against Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin's hard-line negotiating stand and will be more free to act on that resentment if reelected in November. That assumption, some US diplomats have commented privately, is well founded.
A second guiding assumption is that Washington's European allies will feel more able to sway Mr. Carter away from his Camp David negotiating approach in the Middle East after the US elections. That assumption, some European officials have said privately, is also well founded.
Saudi Prince Fahd, in otherwise nonspecific remarks to the Beirut newspaper An Nahar on his vision of the Amman summit, argued that the united stand he had in mind would ensure "Europen support for Arab causes."
But ultimately, most Beirut analyst argue, the key to what happens in Amman this November is what happens in Washington until then. If President Carter stands firm on the Camp David blueprint, they say, Arab moderates might be less willing to carry the day in Amman. But if Ronald Reagan or John Anderson is elected, much the same effect is expected.