EGYPT'S president is the first of three Mideast leaders to visit Washington for talks with President Reagan in the next few months. Egyptian officials warn that time is running out on peace efforts in the region. Undeterred by voices of discouragement, the United States is looking for ways to regain momentum in the stalled Middle East peace process.
With the visit today of President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and the visit next week of Jordan's King Hussein, President Reagan will have an opportunity to discuss where peace efforts go from here. Later this fall, he is also expected to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres.
Mr. Mubarak arrives having recently conferred with King Hussein and thus will be in a position to share the King's latest views with Mr. Reagan. Egyptian officials warn that time may be running out on the Jordanian peace initiative of last Feburary -- in which Mubarak played a key role -- if the US does not make a vigorous effort to move the process forward.
One roadblock to reviving Mideast peacemaking is the question of US arms sales to Jordan. The Jordanians are reportedly seeking about $1 billion worth of F-16 or F-20 fighter planes, anti-aircraft missiles, and other equipment over a three-year period.
Administration officials say the President will probably submit a modified arms proposal to Congress this week in anticipation of the King's visit on Sept. 30. But many lawmakers are demanding that there be no sale of advanced weapons until Jordan explicitly commits itself to eventual talks with Israel.
Among the issues US officials and arriving Mideast leaders will be discussing during the next few weeks is whether King Hussein can satisfy this congressional demand. Secretary of State George P. Shultz has been speaking out in favor of sales of aircraft and other equipment to Jordan as essential to supporting the moderate Arab leader's peace efforts and demonstrating US goodwill.
But key Republican legislators have warned that the administration faces a bruising battle with Congress if it goes ahead with the sale.
For Jordan, the arms are viewed as critical. Given the Syrian and Israeli defense buildups, the Jordanians see their military situation deteriorating. And even if an arms package goes through, it is so modest that the military balance will not be affected. The administration has sought to assure Israel's supporters in Congress that such sales would not threaten Israel. A recent internal study of the strategic balance in the Middle East concluded that Israel's ability to defeat ``any combination of poten tial Arab adversaries'' was likely to continue at least for the rest of the decade.
Meanwhile, the administration is seeking a way to overcome the impasse in the movement toward peace talks. The effort began last Februrary when King Hussein and Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) agreed on a framework for seeking peace with Israel.
But the initiative is bogged down despite visits to the region by US Assistant Secretary of State Richard W. Murphy. The present hangup is twofold: the choice of Palestinians on a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation with which the US would hold an initial meeting; and the issue of whether such a meeting would lead to direct talks between Israel and Jordan.
Increasingly, Washington appears concerned that it may be headed down the King's proposed path to peace talks only to find there is nothing at the end of the path. Under the four-stage Hussein-Arafat plan, the US would meet with a Jordanian-Palestinian team; the PLO would then proclaim its support for UN Resolution 242 and Israel's right to exist; the US would begin a dialogue with the PLO; and some kind of international conference would be held to serve as an umbrella for talks between the parties.
The administration is seeking a way to assure follow-through on the plan. ``We didn't see in the scenario the automatic flow or any mechanism . . . to get from stage one through two, three, and to the direct negotiations,'' says a senior State Department official. ``And we don't want to set up a process where there is an open-ended dialogue, either, in this first stage.''
Administration officials also have trouble with the idea of an international conference, which would include the Soviet Union. Israel also opposes such a conference, although this issue is not thought to be an insurmountable obstacle if other apsects of the plan fall in place.
Diplomatic experts warn that this may be a last opportunity to push forward a peace process in the Middle East. Next year US lawmakers face an election, which will make it difficult to resist pro-Israeli pressures. Also, Mr. Peres will be turning over power to his hard-line coalition partner, the Likud bloc, which is less interested in a West Bank settlement.
If this chance for progress is lost, say some experts, Jordan may be compelled to move toward an accommodation with Syria (the two countries' foreign ministers met recently), the PLO will become more radical, and the position of the moderate Arab leaders will be undermined.
Administration officials voice hope that Reagan's meetings with the major Middle East players will yield some kind of breakthrough to warrant Mr. Murphy's return to the region and a get-together with a Jordanian-Palestinian delegation.
[Meanwhile, according to Reuters, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said Friday that Britain -- in a marked shift in policy -- was ready to meet in London with a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation that included two PLO leaders.]