AT what point should the United States weigh in with renewed efforts to broker an Arab/Israeli settlement of outstanding territorial and political questions? Much of the recent activity in this part of the world must be understood as part of an effort to influence a response to that question. The message of the accord reached last month between Jordan's King Hussein and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat was that the PLO is no longer an absolute obstacle to a successful Washington initiative since it has delegated part of its bargaining authority to the King and accepts the land-for-peace principle of UN Security Council Resolution 242, if not the resolution itself.
The thrust of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's subsequent initiative was even more direct. First get the US actively engaged via a face-to-face meeting with Jordanians and Palestinians in Washington and then proceed to direct talks between the parties themselves in Washington or Cairo.
These efforts have been cheered by a chorus of familiar American voices, long in harmony on a rather simple theme: Mideast peace can be achieved only if the US recognizes the PLO, pressures Israel into yielding all or nearly all of the territory conquered in 1967, and accepts the necessity of a Palestinian state.
However, the PLO is bitterly divided into factions, and outside the umbrella organization there is simply no Palestinian political voice of even colorable legitimacy.
A call for an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip has long been a tenet of American policy. True, there was some creative ambiguity to the Resolution 242 call for withdrawal ``from territories occupied'' in the 1967 conflict. The consistent US position, however, is that the resolution applies ``to all fronts'' and permits only minor security-related border adjustments.
Unquestionably, too, the national consciousness of the Palestinian people has now matured to the point where nationhood is its logical expression. Whatever the boundaries of a future Palestine, whatever its relationship to Jordan, the 1,250,000 Palestinian Arabs of the West Bank and Gaza cannot forever live in stateless limbo.
Yet the obstacles to bold moves initiated by outsiders are formidable. In its fractured state, the PLO can barely summon a quorum and must hedge even its most cautious suggestions of willingness to accept pre-1967 Israel.
Hussein, whose military folly proved so dear 18 years ago, wants to negotiate about the manner in which Arab sovereignty should be returned to the lost area rather than over how much of the area is returned. Unfortunately, the final status of such matters as Jerusalem can only be settled at the negotiating table.
The leadership of the current Israeli government is committed to the application of Resolution 242 to the West Bank and Gaza. But Prime Minister Shimon Peres heads a delicate coalition, some of whose members oppose all territorial compromise in ``Judea'' and ``Samaria,'' and over a society where a substantial minority press claims on the occupied area with religious fervor.
Moreover, even the most liberal Israeli acknowledges that arrangements on the West Bank and Gaza are matters essential to Israel's security and that interim arrangements of the sort required are inconsistent with the immediate creation of a sovereign Palestinian state.
Navigating these perilous waters, Mr. Peres indicates Israel is ready to commence negotiations with Jordan or with a mixed Jordanian-Palestinian delegation as suggested by President Mubarak. That the Palestinian members of the delegation would be little more than front men for the PLO is quietly acknowledged by senior Israeli officials, many of whom hope and expect a revived peace process to generate its own political momentum.
Given what Abba Eban has called the ``verbal parsimony'' of the PLO as regards Israel's very existence, it would be an act of political madness for the Peres government to engage in direct talks with a formal PLO delegation. For the US to hold such a meeting would distract and complicate relations with Israel to no useful end.
Nor is there any support within Israel for the sort of international conference still urged by King Hussein and Mr. Arafat. Such a conference would bring to the table the most extreme rejectionist elements within the Palestinian movement, their radical Arab patrons, plus the Soviet Union, whose goal would be to sabotage any arrangement bearing too distinct a western imprint.
Thus, a premature American initiative to bring the parties together would have the reverse effect, sacrificing commitment of the current Israeli government to negotiations, and possibly breaking up the government itself.
The history of the Arab-Israeli dispute is littered with American efforts to introduce a rule of reason into a region where passions, power, and prejudice usually hold sway. For 30 years US mediation produced results only under the desperate conditions of war. President Jimmy Carter's 1978 Camp David initiative led eventually to a treaty between Egypt and Israel, but only after the grand gesture of Anwar Sadat's 1977 visit to Jerusalem had broken down the psychological barriers to peace.
Timing is everything. At the right moment a US willingness to reactivate its quest for a regional solution can have great beneficial impact. That moment will come when Hussein -- with PLO in tow -- indicates a willingness to come to the table and negotiate directly with Israel. Until then, the US can afford to be patient.
C. Robert Zelnick is the ABC News correspondent in Tel Aviv.