Tilt to progress

A great world power, certainly no less than the humblest individual, has an obligation to incline incessantly toward progress, even when the times are not yet right to lean with its full weight. A moral position, held to, can help induce the very conditions needed for solution. At this moment in the Middle East, the Reagan administration is wise to be cautious about the prospects of any near-term breakthrough in relations between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

Granted, there is movement on the Arab side, a groping for new positions of influence within the Arab world and with the United States. The latest glimpse of this movement was Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's suggestion that the United States sponsor preliminary talks between Israel and a Jordanian-Palestinian delegation, a proposal in which Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres quickly expressed interest. Before this came reports that King Hussein of Jordan had been trying to interest Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in such a negotiating team, excluding direct Palestine Liberation Organization involvement, leading to a Palestinian entity within a Jordanian confederation. From this stage, talks with Israel could be held on the status of Palestinian territories now held by Israel.

Also, the encouraging movement in Jordan, Egypt, and, under Mr. Peres, in Israel appears based on the assumption that the United States would have to play a role if serious negotiations were to succeed.

For the moment, however, Washington's waiting game appears correct. Until prospects for a substantial breakthrough are seen, Washington cannnot be expected to commit its prestige to a plan or process simply on the basis of what is no doubt a genuine effort to improve the Arab posture on a settlement.

On the Arab side, equivocation persists over the United Nations resolutions for the region. Mr. Mubarak's overtures reflect the context of Egypt's desire to get back into the Arab fold without fatally disrupting relations with Israel. The pressures of Arab politics, even in the most positive circumstances, inhibit movement toward Palestinian acceptance of Israel's existence in a way Israel could accept. Whereas reason is seen for Washington and Damascus to seek accord because of a potential Shiite threat in southern Lebanon, Syria still remains committed to a split in the Palestinian movement.

In the Arab world, inter-Arab politics still presses to come before peace with Israel, as Egypt's courageous Anwar Sadat knew full well.

On the Israeli side, the economy and the exodus from Lebanon appear more urgent at the moment. Peres's leadership is generally seen as more favorable to movement on the Palestinian territories issue. The longer Peres's initial successes in governing continue, the better position he would be in to lead the coalition government in the direction of peace. But the 25 months of his agreed-upon tenure are ticking steadily away.

The Camp David framework remains the nearest thing to an agreed approach to a settlement. It calls for an interim period of autonomy on the West Bank. The arguments alone over what would constitute ``autonomy'' seem endless. What to do about the status of east Jerusalem, the thorniest issue of all, would likely be the last issue approached. Only if everything else fell into place would Israel possibly bend on the Jerusalem issue, analysts have long felt. The White House, by resisting pressures to shift the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, has correctly protected US usefulness in eventually resolving the Jerusalem issue.

Washington does have an obligation to set itself in the direction of Middle East peace. Where injustice and strife are so evident, there can be no such thing as a passive policy. Israel and its Arab antagonists need to know at every turn, including discussions of military and other assistance, that the Reagan administration's weight is resolutely inclined toward a peace agreement. It is the promise of some security in that weight that leads the adversaries to expect a Washington role in the outcome.

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