Senior State Department envoy, Richard Murphy, began a regional tour of the Middle East this weekend that may lead to some shuttle diplomacy by Secretary of State George Shultz next month. United States officials say that Mr. Murphy, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern and Asian affairs, is trying to determine whether the time is ripe for negotiations to begin between Israel and a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation.
This is his first trip to the Mideast since Jordan's King Hussein and Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat signed an agreement Feb. 11 jointly to pursue a negotiated settlement with Israel.
Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres is viewed by the US, King Hussein, and some Palestinians as being serious about wanting negotiations. However, opposition from the Likud bloc in a divided Israeli Cabinet is a major stumbling block.
The latest example of this split came Sunday, when the Cabinet refused to approve a trip to Egypt by Ezer Weizman, minister without portfolio, at the invitation of Egyptian Prime Minister Kamal Hassan Ali. It was widely believed that Mr. Weizman's visit would prepare the groundwork for a summit meeting between Mr. Peres and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Peres's aides have said they feel restoration of good relations with Egypt is an essential prelude to entering negotiations with Jordan.
Mr. Murphy arrived Saturday in Amman, Jordan, where he met with King Hussein, other Jordanian officials, and Palestininans. He is expected in Jerusalem today and is also expected to travel to Cairo and Damascus. Just before Murphy's arrival in Amman, Mr. Arafat ended four days of meetings with King Hussein and flew to Baghdad.
It was announced Sunday that the PLO executive committee, which implements policy for the guerrilla organization, would meet in Baghdad today to discuss Middle East developments, particularly the joint Jordanian-Palestinian approach to peace in the region.
The flurry of activity has fueled speculation that a Jordanian-Palestinian negotiating team may soon be named.
Should Murphy be encouraged by his meetings in Jordan, Israel, Egypt, and Syria, sources say, Mr. Shultz's planned visit to Israel May 10 may be expanded to include other nations -- presumably Egypt and Jordan and possibly Syria.
``It would mean that the secretary of state would be traveling through the region, with all the prestige of his office brought to bear,'' says one knowledgeable source.
Arabs and some Israeli officials have been urging the US to take a more public, aggressive role in restarting the Middle East peace process. King Hussein has said in several recent interviews that time is running out for negotiations that would exchange Israeli-occupied Arab lands on the West Bank for comprehensive peace.
This argument is echoed by West Bank Palestinians, who quote reports such as one issued recently by the West Bank Data Project, an independent research firm in Israel. According to the report, Israel now controls 52 percent of land on the occupied West Bank.
Palestinian moderates such as Elias Freij, mayor of Bethlehem, say they have grown impatient with US reluctance to join the negotiation process.
``The Americans are becoming very cautious, and this cautiousness could torpedo the whole thing,'' Mr. Freij said. ``Things will depend on whom Murphy will talk to.''
Diplomatic sources here insisted that Murphy would be meeting with Palestinians, but was not in the region to help select a Jordanian-Palestinian delegation, nor to negotiate himself.
Shortly after the Hussein-Arafat accord was announced, Egypt's Hosni Mubarak called for the joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation to be formed and to hold preliminary meetings with the Americans before meeting with Israel.
The accord was condemned by Syria, which has rejected the notion of a negotiated settlement with Israel. It was also sharply criticized within the PLO and met with a mixed response from the Israelis.
Peres has said Israel is willing to talk, without preconditions, to a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation that does not include PLO members. The Palestinians and all Arab states, however, regard the PLO as the only representative of the Palestinians. King Hussein repeatedly has insisted that he can only enter negotiations as a partner to the PLO. What remains to be seen is whether Arafat is willing to settle for designating representatives to a non-PLO Palestinian delegation.
``If they are known or unknown members of the PLO, it doesn't matter to us, as long as they are selected by the PLO,'' said Hana Siniora, editor of Al-Fajr, an East Jerusalem Arabic newspaper that supports the PLO.
Many observers here, however, are doubtful of the success of the talks, even if a delegation acceptable to all parties is formed.
Peres has been trying since last September to steer the Israeli Cabinet cautiously toward negotiations with Jordan, diplomatic sources say. He has sought to end Israel's occupation of south Lebanon, improve conditions on the West Bank for its nearly 1 million Arab inhabitants, and restore relations with Egypt.
But Peres's Labor Party comprises only one half the Israeli Cabinet. The other half is composed of Likud members, most of whom have sworn to block attempts to negotiate away the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Golan Heights.
Weizman's trip to Egypt was strongly opposed by Yitzhak Shamir, foreign minister and former Likud prime minister, who has consistently opposed Peres's overtures to Egypt in recent months. Mr. Shamir argues that Israel has appeared too eager to make concessions in order to reinvigorate the peace treaty signed by the two nations in 1979.
Observers here say that before Hussein and Arafat enter negotiations which would be fraught with risks for them, they would have to be convinced that Peres could deliver his fractious Cabinet or win new elections if the Israeli government collapses over the peace issue.
The Jordanians and Egyptians seem to be trying to bolster Peres, some observers believe. Mubarak has made overtures toward the prime minister and promised an improvement in relations.
Hussein has appointed a new, 23-man Cabinet that seems designed for negotiating peace with Israel. Eleven of the ministers are of Palestinian descent, including foreign minister Taher Masri, whose family is prominent in the West Bank town of Nablus.
State Department officials are particularly pleased with the appointment of Ziyad Rifai as prime minister. Mr. Rifai is identified as pro-Syrian, but ``has long said the king should take the risk for peace,'' said one Western source.
For the Americans, the next several months will involve walking a tightrope between holding back while the various parties in the Middle East clarify their positions and getting involved enough to bring them to a negotiating table in a framework that could offer success.