Arab leaders hope that next week's Geneva summit will produce a superpower understanding on the Middle East that could bring about a peace settlement with Israel. The most visible test of progress will be what happens to the proposal for an international conference on Mideast peace. Such a conference could come about only if the United States and the Soviet Union agreed on the roles they themselves have to play in that peace process.
Signs are that the Arab moderates, while acknowledging the vital role that the US must play in Middle East peacemaking, are exploring a new approach. This approach is based on greater balance between the superpowers and on unity, rather than division, within the Arab world.
The changing approach is seen most clearly in the current orientation of Jordan's King Hussein.
Up until the Arab summit in early August -- which was boycotted by Syrian-led, Soviet-encouraged hard-liners -- King Hussein was openly urging the moderate Arab mainstream to dump the radical veto, support a controversial accord between him and Palestine Liberation Organization chief Yasser Arafat, and move quickly toward US-sponsored talks with Israel. This would have left the Soviets and Syrians to catch up later if they wanted.
Now the King is leading the drive in the opposite direction, moving swiftly toward reconciliation with Syria, the Soviet Union's closest regional ally.
The latest step came Tuesday, with the arrival in Damascus of a Jordanian delegation led by Prime Minister Zaid Rifai. His trip was preceded by a startling public admission from Hussein, validating hitherto rejected Syrian claims that Muslim fundamentalists had used Jordanian territory as a base for launching sabotage missions into Syria.
The shift is less apparent, but no less real, in the new emphasis placed by moderate Arab leaders on their call for an international conference -- which has long been a primary Syrian and Soviet demand.
Hussein, Egypt's President Mubarak, and other Arabs now envisage such a gathering as the gateway to negotiations, rather than a dispensable endorsement at the end of an American-dominated process. In other words, they believe the Soviets will have to be involved from the beginning, not relegated to the role of optional extras at the end.
From the viewpoint of the Arab moderates, the Soviets have an important role to play on many levels. Their alliance with Damascus makes them well placed to encourage Syria to mend its fences with Jordan, the Palestine Liberation Organization, and Iraq -- as well as to work for reunification within the PLO.
The Soviets have already been visibly active. The Syrian-Jordanian rapprochement undoubtedly has Moscow's blessing. The Soviet ambassador in Amman held lengthy meetings with the PLO leadership during Arafat's recent talks with Hussein there, while a Soviet delegation headed by the Kremlin's ranking Middle East specialist, Karen Brutents, paid a lengthy visit to Damascus for talks with Syrian and radical Palestinian leaders.
These same goals are shared by Saudi Arabia. The Saudis were instrumental in withholding mainstream Arab backing for Hussein and his Amman agreement at the Arab summit, and also in subsequently bringing about the Jordan-Syria rapprochement. A recent surprise announcement that ultra-conservative Oman is establishing diplomatic relations with Moscow has led to speculation that Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and other Persian Gulf states may soon follow suit and acknowledge the Soviet role.
By putting the Middle East on the agenda for the Geneva conference, the Soviets may act as an additional channel for the Arab moderates to make their case with the Americans.
Even more importantly, Moscow may become a vital channel to Israel itself. The Soviets have things to offer which the Americans do not -- acceptance by the second superpower, and above all, a reservoir of new Jewish immigrants. Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres has already shown signs of responding to these incentives, and the Arab moderates have certainly done and said nothing to discourage the recent Soviet-Israeli overtures.
Even if an international conference took only token form, which Moscow is unlikely to accept, it would signal tacit recognition by Washington that it needs Soviet cooperation to bring peace to the region.
For more than a decade, US diplomacy has sought to exclude the Soviets from Middle East peacemaking. The last cooperative effort was in late 1973, when the two superpowers were cosponsors of a peace conference under United Nationsauspices. Since then, US peace efforts have caused drastic rifts in the Arab world, without apparently bringing a comprehensive peace any closer.
Beginning with the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, some Arab moderates bet heavily on the US ``option.'' Their belief was that if they acknowledged the preeminent US role, Washington would use its uniquely close ties with Israel to pressure the Israelis into making the concessions necessary for peace.
It simply did not work. As US credibility dwindled in the eyes of the Arab moderates, the incentive for key figures such as Hussein to take risks by joining purely US-sponsored peace moves, was sharply reduced. By the same token, the deterrent threat of hostile pressures from Soviet-backed hardliners, especially Syria, was felt all the more strongly.
The agreement between Hussein and the PLO's Arafat in Amman Feb. 11 may have represented the last chance for the US to play the crucial leading role. Although the accord paid lip service to the need for an international conference, its immediate aim was to draw the US into a dialogue with the PLO.
The unspoken idea was that Washington would then somehow oblige Israel to accept the PLO, operating in tandem with Jordan, as a negotiating partner. Syrian involvement and Soviet endorsement would be sought, but was not considered indispensable, and the real levers would be in American hands.
For that reason, the accord was denounced by both Moscow and Damascus. The Syrians set up a Palestine National Salvation Front to bring down the Amman agreement.
Under Israeli pressure, Washington backed off from the proposed dialogue. The fallout from last month's Achille Lauro hijacking confirmed the existing deadlock. In addition, a US Senate vote last month blocking the Reagan administration's $1.9 billion arms sales to Jordan may have been the final nail in the coffin.
But, while displaying growing recognition of the role the Soviets may have to play, the moderate Arabs acknowledge that Moscow alone cannot possibly bring peace to the region.
Creative cooperation between the two superpowers is seen as essential. Hence the importance they attach to the Geneva summit, tinged by fear that it may fail to produce the vital breakthrough for reasons quite unconnected with the Middle East.