The Arab League summit that ended last Friday was clearly not a turning-point -- either in the perennial search for Mideast peace or in the effort to restore Arab unity. It failed to give the joint peace initiative pursued by Jordan's King Hussein and Palestine Liberation Organization chief Yasser Arafat, in coordination with Egypt, the unqualified and enthusiastic stamp of approval for which the King had been campaigning. It thus left King Hussein's initiative roughly where it was already.
The meeting in Morocco offered Washington few crumbs of comfort to ease its dilemma over how to proceed on the delicate question of a proposed meeting between US officials and a Jordanian-Palestinian team.
It gave Washington little ammunition with which to convince the Israelis that Jordan and the Palestinians, with Arab backing, are ready for direct, US-sponsored talks with Israel following their proposed dialogue with US officials. Israel strongly opposes that dialogue in principle, and rejects most of the Palestinians named as potential members of the joint delegation.
From the outset the gathering had an interim flavor. Not only did five important nations -- Syria, Libya, Algeria, Lebanon, and South Yemen -- stay away altogether, but the heads of state of such major countries as Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Kuwait sent second-ranking leaders to deputize for them. The only real heavyweights to show up were King Hussein and Mr. Arafat.
It was thus not surprising that the meeting refrained from embarking on major decisions, and concentrated instead on trying to prepare the stage for a full, regular summit, tentatively scheduled for November.
However, far from scrapping consensus politics and writing off the Syrian-led radicals, the summit strongly reaffirmed the need for Arab unanimity and solidarity, and set up conciliation committees to try to draw the angry absentees back into the fold.
The meeting also tacitly reaffirmed the concept of superpower balance in peace efforts by charging its host, King Hassan II of Morocco, to brief both the Americans and the Soviets on the outcome.
In their efforts to follow up the only clear decisions they did take -- to try to mend fences with Syria and its allies, and to approach the Soviets -- the summit participants may ironically be hampered by the fact that they went ahead with the meeting in the first place.
Both Moscow and the Arab absentees reacted to it with suspicion and hostility, seeing it as a step toward another US-sponsored separate peace deal. Syria termed it a ``summit of surrender,'' while the Soviet press called it a ``flagrant step backward from the legitimate requirements for restoring justice and peace in the Middle East.''
The summit participants, in their final communiqu'e, said only that they had ``listened to detailed accounts'' by Hussein and Arafat of the agreement they reached Feb. 11 in Amman on a joint peace strategy. The communiqu'e ``recorded with all appreciation'' the explanation advanced by the two men, who argued that the agreement was in line with the Arab peace plan agreed at the full summit in Fez, Morocco, in September 1982. The Hussein-Arafat accord calls for the creation of a Palestinian state ``federa ted'' with Jordan, and is based on the concept of trading land for peace with Israel.
The Casablanca meeting reaffirmed the need to continue ``the common Arab commitment to the spirit and principles of the Fez resolutions,'' which, among other things, called for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in the Israeli-occupied territories in the West Bank, with Jerusalem as its capital.
This was far less than the full endorsement for which Hussein -- and apparently Washington, too -- had hoped. Before the meeting began, State Department spokesman Bernard Kalb said, ``We will look to the summit to reinforce King Hussein's initiative.''
Egypt -- an absentee from the summit, following its suspension from the Arab League in 1979 after signing a peace treaty with Israel -- had also urged the gathering to put its full weight behind the Hussein-Arafat strategy.
For months, Hussein has argued that the time has come for the moderate Arab majority to break with the longstanding commitment to consensus in pan-Arab decisionmaking. Urging that his plan is the ``last chance'' for peace, he has suggested that the moderates throw off the ``radical veto'' wielded by Syria and its allies and free themselves to move decisively toward peace.
Iraq and Egypt, as well as some PLO leaders, have supported that proposal.
If Egypt -- and presumably the Americans -- had had their way, the Casablanca meeting would indeed have marked a radical turning-point, with the Arab moderates opting decisively for majority action rather than collective immobility. They would have rehabilitated Egypt, dumped the Soviets, Syrians, and other hard-liners, and gone all-out in pursuit of US-sponsored peace moves. Earlier Egyptian Prime Minister Kamal Hassan Ali had ruled out a role for the Soviet Union in Middle East peacemaking, saying tha t it had failed to support the Jordanian-PLO initiative.
But it was not to be. Such a dramatic shift would not only have flown in the face of the absent hard-liners, but would also have gone against the fundamental instincts of the Arab middle ground, and especially the powerful, ultra-cautious Saudis. Characteristically, the Saudis hedged their bets by agreeing to attend the summit while diminishing its authority and appeasing the Syrians by keeping King Fahd himself at home.