IN a Mediterranean overflowing with weapons, a peace initiative that has so far gone unnoticed is worthy of note. Head of a historically important small nation of 320,000 beholden to its neighbors for foreign aid, Maltese leader Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici has attempted what he describes as ``a diplomatic initiative to avoid war in the Mediterranean.'' Malta is totally dependent upon Libyan oil, which it receives at a discount.
It was Maltese who informed the Italians that in case of American retaliation against Libya, Col. Mu-ammar Qaddafi had threatened to bomb American bases at Sigonella and Naples. These threats led to an Italian military buildup in the area.
Mr. Bonicci also wrote to the chiefs of 10 Mediterranean governments proposing a conference to resolve regional problems. Mindful of Col. Qaddafi's unreliability, the leaders refused. Only Qaddafi accepted. Aiming at a dramatic turn of events, he then agreed to meet Italian Prime Minister Bettino Craxi at Valletta, the Maltese capital. Remembering how the Libyan leader burned France's Fran,cois Mit-terrand, Mr. Craxi turned him down. In a meeting on Crete, Mr. Mitter-rand and Qaddafi agreed to remove their troops from the African state of Chad. The French soldiers are gone, but the Libyans remain.
As revealed Jan. 28, however, Bonicci received Qaddafi's promise to rein in the Palestinian terrorists he may have influence upon, in return for an American assurance not to bomb his country.
In describing a meeting with Qaddafi, Bonicci said that he declared his readiness to meet with US representatives and discuss ``any subject'' with them. Qaddafi also wished to talk with 10 states in the region to reach agreement on reciprocal renunciation of force, prohibition of the use of bases on the soil of each for attacks on the other, and a solemn commitment not to lend aid to terrorists.
Informed of these overtures, the Americans reacted ``in a very negative manner.'' According to Bonicci, the American government favors neither talks with Qaddafi nor a Mediterranean conference.
Bonicci warns that a United States attack could prompt Libyan retaliation against nearby countries. And even if the Americans merely persisted with economic sanctions, the consequence could be closer Libyan ties with the Soviets, which would further competition between the superpowers in the region.
A conflict in the area threatens peace for everyone. Now that it has made clear its intention not to be bullied, should the United States not take steps to defuse the situation, in concert with its allies in the region, no matter how cautiously and in-directly, by seeking talks with Qaddafi, for example? On his part, Qaddafi should give ironclad guarantees that he is willing to resolve the issues troubling the area.
Spencer DiScala is associate professor of history at the University of Massachusetts.