The start today of American-Soviet consultations on the Middle East comes at a time when recent moves by Arab leaders are breathing new life into the moribund peace process. Moderate leaders in Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia have been saying privately since last fall that they would launch their own peace initiative in the spring.
In some ways, the time seems ripe. Israel has been weakened by its failed military adventure in Lebanon and its profound economic crisis. It is more dependent on the United States than ever before, and more in need of a peace that would enable it to contain its staggering defense costs.
In the US, President Reagan is starting his second term and is therefore less subject to domestic pressures. He is also eager to leave his mark on history.
Topping Reagan's agenda is arms control talks with the Soviet Union. One offshoot of those talks is an agreement to consult on regions where both have interests. The talks in Vienna are the first formal US-Soviet meeting on the Mideast since 1973. Moderate Arab leaders are hopeful that the talks are the start of renewed cooperation between the superpowers in the Mideast.
The moderate Arab states have also shown some willingness to defy the hard-line states, such as Syria and Libya, and seek a political settlement with Israel.
But a host of obstacles to serious progress remain: the continued fragmentation of the Arab world, US reluctance to reenter the morass of Middle East politics, the tenuous position of Palestine Liberation Organization chief Yasser Arafat, and the fragility of Israel's government.
Some progress, however, has been made. Jordan's King Hussein laid the groundwork last fall when he first broke Arab ranks and restored diplomatic ties with Egypt, then allowed the PLO to convene its ``parliament in exile,'' the Palestine National Council, in Amman.
That had the effect of isolating Syria and the Palestinian rejectionists, who opposed the convening of the PNC. It also pulled Arafat closer to King Hussein, who is backed publicly by Egypt.
The first dramatic followup to the PNC came last week when Hussein and Arafat announced they had agreed on a joint approach to the Palestinian problem.
``What it means is that the pure Jordanian option [Israel returning the occupied West Bank to Jordan in return for peace] is lost,'' says Prof. Matti Steinberg, an expert on the PLO at Jerusalem's Hebrew University. ``There is only a joint Jordanian-Palestinian option.''
But, experts and officials here say, the agreement was too vague to give the US enough incentive to pressure Israel to accept the agreement, or to tempt Prime Minister Shimon Peres to risk a government crisis by agreeing to talk.
The agreement did not contain explicit PLO acceptance of United Nations Security Council Resolution 242, which acknowledges the right of all states in the region to exist in peace behind secure borders while condemning the acquisition of territory through force. The PLO has always rejected 242 because it refers only to the ``refugee problem'' and does not mention the possibility of a Palestinian state. But the US, Israel, and Hussein have said 242 must be the basis of any peace negotiations. The closest the King and Arafat came to addressing it was the part of their agreement stating they had accepted ``all United Nations resolutions pertaining to the Palestinian problem.''
As Hussein and Arafat announced their agreement, Saudi Arabia's King Fahd was in Washington where he urged renewed American involvement in the Middle East peace process. Fahd reportedly left with the feeling that the US will play a more active role, and sent Prince Bandar, the Saudi ambassador in Washington, to Syria to convey this perception.
Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak, who visits Washington next month, hailed the Arafat-Hussein agreement and called for a more aggressive regional role for the US. At the same time, Mr. Mubarak made some gestures toward Israel designed to show his willingness to warm the cold peace existing between them.
Against this backdrop, Israel over the weekend completed the first stage of its planned withdrawal from south Lebanon. An end to the Israeli occupation is regarded as a crucial prelude to any renewed peace effort.
Officials here caution, however, that none of these developments should be considered a significant breakthrough.
``I don't think the Arab world is really ready for peace with Israel,'' says a high-ranking official close to Mr. Peres. ``Something is moving in the Arab world, as it has many times in the last few years. But the ball is still undoubtedly in the Arab court.''
The official voiced opinions shared by the more moderate half of Peres's Cabinet. The Likud half rejected the Hussein-Arafat agreement, and continues to view Egypt as uninterested in better relations with Israel.
Some Israeli hard-liners labeled the recent Arab moves as sheer propaganda aimed at enticing the US to pressure Israel into making territorial compromises.
Political observers here generally agree that the US is the object of much of the political maneuvering. But there is sharp disagreement over what role the US will choose to play. Officially, the Israeli government is confident that the Reagan administration will not use Israel's economic dependency on US foreign aid as a tool to force Israel into any unwanted compromises.
Government officials say they are unconcerned about the two days of US-Soviet talks in Vienna. US officials have assured Israel that the talks will not be substantive and do not mark a change in administration opposition to the notion of an international peace conference.
The idea of a conference that would include all parties to a Mideast peace settlement, plus the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, has been endorsed by the Arab states, the PLO, the Soviet Union, and European nations. It has been rejected by the US and Israel.
The Reagan administration has billed its decision to meet with the Soviets on the Middle East as part of a series of meetings to spin off from renewed arms talks.
The Israelis believe there is little chance that the US will allow the Russians back into the Mideast peace process. The Israelis remain convinced that the US stands by its position that any new peace talks should be in the form of direct negotiations between the Arabs and Israel.
``The Jordanian-Egyptian-PLO [alliance] notices the United States' reduced involvement and the United States' underlying philosophy that the Arabs should come to terms with the reality of negotiating directly with Israel. Their counterstrategy is to encourage the United States to involve itself, to exert pressure on Israel,'' an Israeli Foreign Ministry official says.
Prime Minister Peres and other Labor Party members still hope that Hussein will be the next Sadat and enter into bilateral negotiations to exchange land for peace.
``The two most significant changes in the Middle East have been the change of government in Jerusalem, because we'll talk about everything, and the weakening of the PLO, which has led to the strengthening of Jordan,'' says the official who is close to Peres.
Israel, the official says, does not fear American pressure as a result of Arab peace offerings.
``Israel's strongest card is that we are ready to talk and they are not,'' the official says. ``If the US and the Europeans go with the PLO, that will kill any chance of renewing the peace process, because the PLO is taboo in Israel.'' He says Israel plans to continue its ``quiet diplomacy'' with Egypt to strengthen ties.
``That is the basis for everything because today you're dealing with an Egypt that's back with the Arab world,'' the official says. ``If there's a chance . . . for any renewal of the peace process, it's between us and the Egyptians.''
But while Israeli officials publicly were dismissing any Arafat-Hussein agreement as a public-relations ploy, Peres began a trip Monday to Italy and Romania, where he reportedly was to receive messages from Arafat.