As US President-elect Ronald Reagan's transition team considers its options in the Mideast, a veiled warning comes from some senior Western diplomats in the Arab world that the team might be settling off on the wrong foot.
"There seems to be a trend inside the transition team toward considering a Mideast settlement affecting only the Israeli-occupied territories," one of these professional observers remarked.
"But from my experience here, I would say it would be impossible to have peace in the Mideast without involving the Palestinians of the diaspora -- and that, at some stage, means the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization]."
Most such friendly criticisms of policy ideas expressed by the incoming Reagan administration center on its supposed preference for some kind of a "Jordan option" for dealing with the Palestinian issues.
(The President-elect himself has said that the Jordanian monarch [King Hussein] is one of the first foreign leaders he would like to meet after taking office. But King Hussein's freedom to respond to such overtures apparently was effectively curtailed by the November Arab summit meeting in Amman, Jordan. The King gave a diplomatic excuse for not receiving supposed Reagan emissary, Henry Kissinger, during the former secretary of state's current tour of the Mideast.)
Palestinian political analysts here are confident that a considerable body of opinion exists within the US State Department arguing a case similar to that expressed by the diplomat above.
"But there is another group within the new administration which will almost certainly argue that it is against America's strategic interests in the region to force Israel into making any concessions at all," warns Yale magna-cum-laude graduate Rashid Khalidi, a professor of political science at Beirut's prestigious American University.
Dr. Khalidi, a Palestinian with good access to the PLO leadership, added, "As in all such cases, what emerges will be a compromise." But he considers that what he termed "the hard-line anti-Palestinian view" would probably dominate. He said that in this case, "The PLO will probably perceive the new administration as basically hostile -- possibly more hostile than the Carter administration."
Professor Khalidi, who comes from a prestigious Jerusalem family of jurists and community leaders, said that a number of factors could affect this analysis:
* Developments within the new administration's own published views, especially regarding the Soviet Union."A certain amount of the hard-liners' opposition to any role for the PLOstems from the fact that in doing so they would have to concede some role in finding a settlement to the Soviets," he said. "At the moment, this appears against the transition team's beliefs. But that might change."
* Developments inside Israel could also be a factor, especially the return of a Labor Party government during the coming year.Dr. Khalidi doubted that any new leadership emerging in Israel would seek PLO involvement. But he said that an Israeli Labor government, by "cleaning the face of Zionism after [Prime Minister ] Begin's excesses," might make it easier for US hard-liners to argue against forcing Israeli concessions.
Changes in the Arab world could also affect the policy choices on offer, he said. He doubted the possibility of radical change in the arab world in the immediate future, but said, "Very likely there will be changes in the medium or longer term."
"Since the region has shifted over the past decade toward a strengthening of American interests, any change would most likely be in our, the Palestinian, favor," he said.
The short, mustachioed professor stressed his view that the PLO continues to grow in strength, though it is unlikely to be included in any peace project in the near future and has suffered some setbacks in the region as a result of the Gulf war.
"All you'll see during the coming period of stalemate, which is all you can attain without the PLO, is the PLO getting stronger and stronger internally," he said. "It is already happening. When was the last time people inside the Palestinian movement solved their differences with guns? A long time ago -- apart from executing traitors. We are much more mature these days -- the most sophisticated political constituency in the Arab world."
(PLO chairman Yasser Arafat himself gave some recognition of this in a Jan. 1 speech on the 16th anniversary of Al Fatah, his military group. Calling for more democracy inside the movement, he said, "Let a thousand flowers bloom, so long as they bloom within the garden of the revolution.")
Dr. Khalidi also argued that the PLO's standing among Arabs in the Israeli-occupied areas has grown significantly. "Quite apart from the politics of it, we have built up tremendous links with the Palestinians 'on the inside' in different ways. We can render them services, often through our compatriots in the West, that King Hussein, for example, could never match. We've never been s tronger there, and the trend is continuing," he said.