To understand this week's dramatic news -- the hijacking of an Italian liner by Palestinians -- we need to go back one step to the Israeli raid on PLO headquarters in Tunisia on Oct. 1 and several more steps beyond that to February. On Feb. 11, the government of Jordan issued a communiqu'e on the results of two days of meetings between King Hussein of Jordan and Yasser Arafat, head of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
The communiqu'e announced that the two men had worked out a ``framework for common action'' aimed at peace in the Middle East between Arabs and Israel.
The details of the plan were not included in the public report but were communicated privately to other governments. A supportive interpretation was put on it the following day in Cairo by Osama Baz, principal foreign policy adviser to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. He identified it as meaning that the PLO, for the first time, had ``unequivocally and irrevocably accepted the premise of a peaceful settlement of the Arab-Israel conflict.''
On the same day Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres said it would be difficult to see the Hussein-Arafat statement as a peace formula, but he did not denounce it outright. The following day President Reagan said the news had made him ``optimistic'' about the chance for a new start toward peace in the Mideast and that ``it seems some progress has been made.''
All of that was the public surfacing, after much behind-the-scenes work, of the most serious push toward a possible Mideast peace since the Camp David initiative of the Carter administration.
In the pursuit of the Hussein-Arafat initiative since then, many conferences have been held. It was discussed on Feb. 19 and 20 in Vienna when United States and Soviet diplomats met to talk about the Middle East for the first time since 1977 when the US and Soviets entered into an agreement to become joint chairmen of an international conference on the Middle East. That initiative was overwhelmed by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's dramatic trip to Jerusalem and the resultant Camp David effort. The Sovi ets were excluded from that affair.
Since the Feb. 19 and 20 meeting, when the Soviets were informed of current Washington thinking about the Middle East, US Secretary of State George Shultz has visited the area to further the Hussein-Arafat initiative and assistant secretary of state, Richard Murphy, has worked on the project almost full time.
But these efforts for Middle East peace have also been accompanied by a rising violence committed by both sides. The sequence involved increasing resistance by Arabs living in Israeli- occupied territories, stepped-up Israeli pressure on them (from the government and Jewish settlers) and, in turn, Arab retaliation, including killing and wounding of Israeli citizens.
The latest series of violence began withthe murder of three vacationing Israeli civilians aboard a yacht Cyprus's Larnaca harbor on Sept. 25. The Israelis retaliated by bombing PLO headquarters in Tunisia killing more than 60.
The central question is whether the Hussein-Arafat initiative actually does contain, as Mr. Baz contended, an acceptance by Mr. Arafat of Israel's right to exist. His recognition of Israel has always been a precondition set by the Israelis for any negotiation with the Palestinians. If the formula means he is willing to trade peace for land, then the way is open for negotiations. Hussein says that Arafat has gone as far as he can go and has, in effect, taken the fatal step.
It is that assumption on the part of Washington which has put US support behind the initiative.
It is also that assumption which has inflamed the radicals on both sides. To hard-line Palestinians, recognition of Israel is inconceivable. And to hard-line Israelis, surrender of any occupied territory is equally unthinkable.
The result is that the hard liners have increased their activities in proportion to the danger both perceive of something coming of the Hussein-Arafat initiative. Both seek to spoil the initiative because both prefer war to any currently conceivable compromise.
The killings in Cyprus last month could well have been done by dissident Palestinians hoping to head off any compromise with Israel. The Israeli bombing of PLO headquarters was probably done under pressure from the Likud wing of the coalition. In the opinion of Western diplomats, it was almost certainly imposed on Prime Minister Peres by the Likud as the price for keeping the coalition alive. And the hijack of the ship was carried out by a PLO faction not noted for its loyality to Arafat.
With the radical element so much alive, active, and influential both in Israel and among the Palestinians, the prospects for the Hussein-Arafat initiative are fragile indeed. Would Mr. Peres be allowed by his Likud partners to move toward peace even if Mr. Peres decided to push ahead? Would Mr. Arafat survive, physically, if he committed himself to a recognition of Israel?
In Washington, Secretary Shultz and Mr. Murphy have not given up hope.
But neither have radicals in the Mideast given up hope of scuttling this peace initiative, as they succeeded in scuttling the second half of the Camp David initiative -- the part dealing with the West Bank and Palestinians.