WHILE relations between Moscow and Washington dominate the headlines, the prospects of peace in another part of the world -- the Middle East -- at first blush appear bleak. There has been new Arab terrorism in Jerusalem. Negotiations between Jordan and the Palestine Liberation Organization which might have led to peace talks with Israel have been broken off. American peace initiatives in the area appear stymied. And Yitzhak Shamir, a tough Israeli with a hard-line position on dealing with the Arabs, has become prime minister of his country.
Does this mean that we have lost the little window of opportunity for peacemaking that may have existed when Mr. Shamir's predecessor, the more moderate Shimon Peres, was prime minister for two years?
Well perhaps, but perhaps not.
A former member of the terrorist Stern Gang, and having had long service after Israeli independence with its intelligence operations, Shamir has been doggedly defensive of Israeli occupation of the West Bank, the Golan Heights, and the Gaza Strip, and he favors further Israeli settlement on the West Bank.
He is not, however, totally unfettered if he wants as prime minister to pursue his hard line.
As Assistant Secretary of State Richard W. Murphy has pointed out in an interview, the same balance between Labor and Likud parties exists within the Israeli government as has existed for the past two years. Said Mr. Murphy, the administration point man on the Middle East: The Israeli government ``remains a coalition, with all the inhibitions and constraints of a coalition. Shamir said he wants to pursue peace. He is committed to it.''
There is another factor. It is the factor that enters into the reflective thinking of politicians and statesmen as they near the end of their political careers. It is the ``How-will-history-remember-me?'' syndrome.
There are some who think Shamir may be going through this process now. Might he surprise everybody by being more adventurous than many expect, to leave his mark as a peacemaker?
Ironically, his hard-line credentials might make him the ideal man for such an initiative. It took a hard-liner like Richard Nixon, they say, to open up American relations with communist China. A hard-liner like Ronald Reagan, they say, may be the best man to deal with the Soviets and sell any resulting compact to the American people. It took a tough Israeli like Prime Minister Menachem Begin to participate in the Camp David agreement with Egypt. So perhaps there is a role for Prime Minister Shamir in any new peace maneuvers between Israelis and Arabs.
At present, the road to peace looks long, and is overgrown with weeds and thistles.
Jordan's King Hussein is exasperated with the PLO leadership and is embarking on a major development plan for the West Bank. Some think the intent is to shore up alternative Palestinian leaders with whom he might ultimately go forward in peace talks with the Israelis. That could be a long haul.
As for American involvement, this is a ``period of relative quiet,'' says Murphy -- diplomatic talk for ``nothing doing.''
Some frustrated Arabs are talking of an international conference, involving the Soviets, to try to break the Middle East logjam -- not a prospect that cheers the US. Says Murphy: ``We don't think they [the Soviets] have played a constructive role. Look at what they've dumped [in arms] onto Libya and the way those arms have flowed around the area into Iran and the Gulf war, into those enormous arsenals in the Sahara. There is the lack of diplomatic relations between Moscow and Israel. And the particularly restrictive policy on emigration of Soviet Jewry.''
Before the Soviets could participate in a Middle East peace conference, says Murphy, they should ``show us what they have done. Show us that they are even contemplating playing a constructive role.''
That is a sentiment that Israel's new prime minister will likely echo.