Small steps toward peace in East-West and Mideast arenas

United States Secretary of State George Shultz is flying to Moscow over this weekend in a move that reflects at least a tentative win in Washington by those who want something to come out of the Geneva summit over those who want only confrontation at the summit. It is the top move in a week in world affairs which also found King Hussein of Jordan accepting, tentatively, the olive branch Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres extended in his UN speech the previous week.

In other words, in both East-West relations and in the Middle East the peacemakers are for the moment winning a continuation of a dialogue which still might, and still can, produce substantial results in both areas because the exchanges remain active.

An incidental feature in both stories is the importance of individuals in arriving at crucial decisions. In Washington President Reagan made his decision between the hawk faction led by Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and those who want him to reach for less strain and tension in East-West relations.

It is widely believed in White House quarters that Nancy Reagan has been one of the decisive voices on the side of those who regard the summit as a time and place for moving away from the verbal confrontation of the first Reagan administration in the direction of possible accommodations with Moscow.

The Shultz mission is obviously only exploratory. The purpose, presumably, is to try to determine whether Moscow's new leadership truly wants to pursue the search for accommodations over more confrontation.

The nub of the argument which has been going on behind the scenes in Washington ever since the Geneva summit was arranged has been over whether Moscow really does want to do serious business. The allies and the weight of opinion at the State Department have been on the side of the view that the new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, wants an easier international context so that he can give his primary attention to reviving the Soviet economy.

Against that view is the contention that accommodation will benefit the Soviet Union more than the US and so should be shunned. For a time it seemed that the hawks were winning the argument. But the assumption must have been premature. Mr. Shultz flies to Moscow tomorrow and will talk to the top people there, including Mr. Gorbachev. The only possible purpose is to find out whether the top men may be able to agree in Geneva to keep dialogue going after the summit.

Personalities were just as important in the latest developments in the Middle East as they are in East-West equation. In the UN speech, Mr. Peres had laid out Israel's preconditions in softer terms than ever before. He omitted impossible preconditions. Perhaps most important of all, he offered to travel to Amman, Jordan, to talk personally there with King Hussein.

Mr. Peres went from that major move at the UN back to the Israeli Knesset (parliament) and handily won a vote of confidence there because he had phrased his position so skillfully that the Likud bloc did not dare vote against him. The persuasiveness of the man made the difference.

King Hussein took the next step toward peace negotiations. He invited (or summoned?) Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat to Amman. They talked, apparently at arms length. King Hussein dare not go to the conference table without PLO consent. But dare Mr. Arafat withhold that consent any longer? It could be a last chance to save the West Bank for Palestinians.

Mr. Arafat has blocked progress toward peace in the past by his impossible preconditions as often as Israel by its preconditions. Just as Mr. Peres is shedding the preconditions of the Likud party and his predecessor, Menachem Begin, so King Hussein is trying to get clear of those imposed on him by the hard-line faction at the PLO.

The essential fact is that Mr. Peres and King Hussein are moving by cautious steps toward the point where they may be able to actually talk directly with each other. That is now a conceivable possibility. Few diplomats foresaw this change in the Middle East picture.

A month ago the Middle East scene was dominated by murder, bombings, and hijackings. Diplomats had all but given up hope of salvaging anything from King Hussein's peace initiative of last February. Yet this week that initiative was surprisingly alive again.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.