Israel and Egypt appear to be using former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's private swing through the Middle East as an opportunity to persuade the incoming Reagan administration to drop the "Jordanian option."
On the one hand, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat has told Mr. Kissinger that he is against Jordanian participation in the peace negotiations "at this time."
On the other, Israeli Prime Minister Menachen Begin's insistence on continued Israeli control of the West bank and on a united Jerusalem as Israel's "eternal capital" is reason enough for King Hussein to avoid the painful decision on face- to-face negotiations.
The "Jordanian option" calls for a solution to the Palestinian problem in the framework of a territorial compromise on the West Bank between Israel and Jordan.
But, in the words of one seasoned Middle East observer, "This is an option for everyone except King Hussein. It not only would dwarf King Hussein by making Jordan an appendix of Egypt, but is also impossible for him to accept as long as Israel clings to east Jerusalem.
"Hussein could give up half the West Bank if he'd get Jerusalem. But he will go down in history as the first Arab leader since Ottoman times to lose the holy city."
For the time being, attempts to resolve the Arab-Israeli confrontation are lulled by the transition from a Democratic to a Republican administration in the United States, the expected Cabinet reshuffle in Egypt, and the current Begin government crisis in Israel.
The advantage of this enforced pause, one diplomat comments, "is that the actors are getting back in line at the same time so that ultimately they will be where they were in Camp David." Says one US official: "We are giving them lessons how to deal with each other. This way the final result will be acceptable to all partners."
But at the same time some diplomats feel that "Camp David has fulfilled its function." The incoming Reagan administration may facilitate the transition to a new phase in the attempts to solve the Middle East crisis.
"Reagan will not openly admit that he is doing something new," one diplomat says. "It will be presented as an addendum to the Camp David accords. But Reagan will wish to put his own stamp in the Middle East peace process."
Sensing this, Israel and Egypt, for their own reasons, appear to want to stop such a development as soon as possible.
Israeli officials expect the incoming administration to take "a more pragmatic and less ideological approach" toward enhancing the current Middle East peace negotiations. They hope that Mr. Reagan will return essentially to the Kissinger step-by-step approach, which starts by seeking a solution to the easiest problems (Egyptian-Israeli) and gravitates to the more complicated issues (Israeli-Jordanian, Israeli-Palestinian, and Israeli-Syrian).
Israel officials, however, point to what they describe as "certain dangers" -- for instance, the placing of a stronger US presence in the area. Although they would welcome this in principle, they are concerned that such a presence, under the influence of "the Saudi lobby or big business," could turn out to be detrimental to Israeli interests.
Mr. Kissinger told reporters Jan. 6, that with "a Soviet presence in Afghanistan, a Soviet-commanded presence in Ethiopia, Soviet-supported operations out of Libya, the leaders of this area cannot visualize the concept of a rapid deployment force that comes from the United States 8,000 miles away . . . ." He called for "some physical American presence" in the area "along the lines of the facilities that have already been negotiated by the Carter administration."
The Gulf war is believed to have softened Arab opposition to the US rapid deployment force. But some Arab countries refuse to grant the US bases on their soil. Observers think Saudi Arabia will consider such US requests only if a solution to the Palestinian problem has been found.
Israeli Labor Party leader Shimon Peres -- expected to be Israel's next prime minister following elections slated for November -- sees his "Jordanian option" as a compromise formula. Palestinians here say that Mr. Peres is quietly trying to arrange a meeting with Jordan's King Hussein.