A resolution of the Lebanese conflict would be the first constructive step toward a comprehensive peace and, as we discovered during a 10-day visit to the Middle East with Sen. Paul Tsongas, that step would create as ready a climate for peace between Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan as we have seen in years, should Lebanon and Jordan desire it.
First steps in the Middle East come slow and hard. Our meetings with Egyptian and Israeli leaders reinforced the reality of the complexities involved in the search for peace, complexities well beyond the comprehension of many in the United States and in Europe who seek a fantasy world of simplistic solutions focusing solely on Israeli actions.
Peace in Lebanon and a general peace effort are threatened today by the continued intransigence of Arab leaders who have discovered new ways to sound flexible while maintaining their hostility and nonrecognition of Israel. As precarious as the climate for peace is, it remains threatened by antipeace forces beyond the control of Lebanon, Israel, and Egypt.
For example, a recent issue of the Boston Globe quotes Syrian Foreign Minister Abdel Halim Khaddam's new condition for resolving Lebanon - no longer is Syria's withdrawal conditioned on Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon but on Israel's ''complete withdrawal from all occupied Arab territories and the recognition of the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people.''
Of course, the facts behind that statement tell the true story behind Syria's rejection of peace anywhere, particularly in Lebanon. First, Syria does not see itself as occupying Lebanon - it has never recognized the sovereignty of Lebanon , never exchanged ambassadors with it or had diplomatic relations with it, and views Lebanon as part of Greater Syria.
Secondly, as Egyptian President Mubarak told us in our meeting with him, Syrian President Assad could not survive the military insurrection that would be inevitable if he pulled his troops back to Damascus. His murder of over 30,000 people in the city of Hama late last year would come back to haunt him if he withdrew his troops.
Mubarak spoke openly of Assad's determination to obstruct peace when he explained yet another reason for Syria's veto of progress - its Soviet suppliers and supporters won't allow Syria to make peace. And, as if to preview Syria's new conditions, Mubarak spoke bitterly of how in his over 30 meetings with him, President Assad never even mentioned the Palestinians until now. Mubarak also noted that Syria entered Lebanon over Egypt's and Saudi Arabia's objections.
The Syrians thus hold a key to any future progress to peace, and it is a key that few can hope to wrangle from them. The Saudis seem to be the best bet, but they, as always, are afraid to do anything that might arouse the anger of the Arab states which depend on them for financial support and which they fear.
The PLO's Yasser Arafat is obviously another key player in the drama, yet the PLO's ''moderate'' words of planned future acquiescence in peace contrasted sharply with its terrorist attack on a bus in Tel Aviv recently. The PLO took credit for that rush-hour attack, characterizing it as part of the attempt to regain its ''occupied homeland.'' That attack was in Tel Aviv, not on the West Bank. This attack took place while Arafat was meeting with King Hussein of Jordan and immediately preceding Arafat's visit to Moscow where he received further input and directions on how best to effect a ''peace'' that the Soviets strongly oppose.
Finally, we move ahead to Jordan, which undoubtedly holds the key to immediate peace prospects. King Hussein indicated to Senator Tsongas that he might be willing to move ahead and negotiate for peace with Israel. The pressure of continuing Israeli settlements on the West Bank has shocked the King into understanding that time is of the essence. He will soon have little to negotiate on behalf of the PLO, 3,000 of whose members he murdered in the Black September massacre of 1970. But with the PLO weak, he is in control; now is the time.
Times change, of course, and despite the King's record of entering the wrong wars at the wrong time, he senses this may be the right time to make peace. The Israelis, Egyptians, and American people hope he is willing to make his thought and their quest a reality.
The Middle East remains a quagmire, with the peace rejectionists arguing among themselves as they always have done. The Jordanians, Saudis, and Egyptians back Iraq in a war with Iran, which, backed by the Syrians and Soviets, seems committed to the sacrifice of thousands of Arab lives for no apparent benefit other than Islamic fervor.
The PLO is forced to stay in Tunis, to consider moving to Athens, and to negotiate with its archenemy, Jordan, because Arafat is being opposed by the Syrian-controlled factions of the PLO he needs to survive.
More than an Arab-Israeli conflict, the impending crisis in the Middle East remains an Arab-Arab drama, compounded of war, jealousy, insecurity, and vindictiveness. For Jordan to make a peace initiative, which Prime Minister Begin told us he would warmly welcome, the Arab domino effect of intransigence must be halted. Pressure must be put on Jordan by the US, with appropriate assurances of American backing and support, that now is the time to move lest we all be jeopardized by unrest and the threat of war.
It must be a clear, unequivocal move if it is to succeed.