Middle East: shifting sands

PRESIDENT Reagan and King Hussein of Jordan met at the White House this week, and neither one had much to say that was optimistic about the prospects for peace in the Middle East. Last year when King Hussein was in Washington he was considerably more cheerful. He had been working on Yasser Arafat, the leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization, to agree that a joint Palestinian-Jordanian team could sit down with Israel to discuss peace. King Hussein thought he had Mr. Arafat just about inside his tent.

But as so frequently has been the case, Arafat slipped away, leaving only a shimmering mirage where there had been a wisp of hope.

So now everybody is being low key.

Some Arab leaders have been suggesting that Secretary of State George P. Shultz should head for the Middle East again to try to get some kind of peace process restarted.

But Mr. Shultz has been burned a couple of times and is likely to move very cautiously. He would likely want to hear much more than vague words of encouragement before committing the prestige of the secretary of state to new personal involvement. The word out of the State Department is that a Shultz trip to the Middle East is growing less likely.

Nevertheless, a couple of Middle Eastern developments, although not paving the path to peace, are worth remarking upon.

One is Libya's apparently more restrained behavior since the United States launched punitive air strikes against it. It would be unrealistic to imagine that Col. Muammar Qaddafi had given up meddling and mischiefmaking.

But there have been no terrorist ``spectaculars'' against Americans clearly directed by Libya since the bombings. If Colonel Qaddafi is chastened, that is a plus.

Another interesting development is the manner in which Syria's President, Hafez Assad, is comporting himself. This is harder to interpret, but nonetheless intriguing.

Mr. Assad has been paying a rare visit to Western Europe, to Greece. He has been acting the statesman. He has been disavowing terrorism.

Syria has been sending signals that it will be helpful in securing the release of Western hostages seized in Lebanon. Syria's exact role in the hostage situation has long been murky, since it has not been clear whether Syria knows where the hostages are, who their captors are, or what leverage Syria has with the captors. But certainly Damascus has been at pains in recent weeks to project a more agreeable image.

One theory is that Assad, too, may be chastened by the prospect of American air strikes against him if he is found linked to terrorist acts. Syria has much more formidable air defenses than Libya, and its Soviet mentors might be readier to intervene against American action than they were in Libya. But we do not know what quiet words have passed between Washington and Moscow and between Moscow and Damascus, and Assad may have been advised by the Soviets to cool things down.

Also, Mr. Assad may have problems at home. His economy is troubled. His political enemies maneuver. In Lebanon, which he regards as a Syrian preserve, he has not been able to inject stability.

It would be unrealistic to think that Assad, who rages against Israel, and whose country has certainly harbored and aided terrorists, has suddenly become a man of peace. The Israelis, for instance, still see Syria's hand behind the attempt to blow up an El Al airliner recently. Had that attempt succeeded, it might have sparked war between Syria and Israel.

But if Mr. Assad is repositioning himself, that is something worth keeping an eye on as we look for opportunities in an otherwise bleak Middle Eastern outlook.

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