The eruption of unrest in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip brings into sharp relief the longstanding problem of achieving a settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict - and the obstacles that continue to thwart a solution. Diplomatic observers in and out of government say the failure of Israel, the Arabs, and the United States to build on the progress of the Camp David peace accords 10 years ago was bound to open the door to the kind of violence witnessed in the past two weeks.
And although it is not clear whether the riots are short-lived or the beginning of a sustained pattern of violence, they are viewed as escalating matters to a new and dangerous plateau and confirming the urgency of addressing the 40-year-old Middle East conflict.
``This should bring home reality to many Israelis that the status quo is no longer acceptable,'' comments a State Department specialist. ``This is but a small taste of what the future holds in store for them. The occupation cannot continue indefinitely, so it's in their interest to negotiate on a foundation of [trading] land for peace.''
``The important thing about all this is that it should destroy a sense of complacency - that things are under control, that the Gulf has taken the focus, and that there's no urgency about doing things,'' says Hermann Eilts, a former US ambassador to Egypt.
Yet the prospects for meaningful diplomatic progress in the next few months are seen to be extremely limited. Mideast experts note these reasons why:
Despite some sporadic efforts, the Reagan administration in seven years has not committed itself to an all-out diplomatic push to bring Israel and its Arab neighbors to the negotiating table. Although President Reagan launched a promising peace initiative in 1982, his top aides have not displayed the determination required to bring the plan to fruition.
The present Israeli government under Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, a hard-liner, is strongly opposed to a settlement requiring Israel to withdraw from the occupied Arab territories. Mr. Shamir has resisted recent peace initiatives that include holding of an international conference on the Mideast.
With both the US and Israel facing elections in 1988, the chances of gearing up another diplomatic initiative are slim. The presidential candidates would be worried by any new move that would force them to pronounce on an issue with such sensitive political implications. And the administration, with little time and energy left, is concentrating on relations with the Soviet Union and on arms cuts.
But despite the obvious impediments to a renewal of the peace process, it is widely felt that the US could begin to set the stage now for constructive action on the problem, once new Israeli and US governments are in place. The Reagan administration should make it clear publicly and privately that the situation has to be addressed and continue the process of trying to re-create some confidence in the region in the wake of the Iran-contra affair, says Nicholas Veliotes, a former US assistant secretary of state under the Reagan administration. ``By now it should be clear to everyone that the Palestinian problem is serious,'' he remarks. ``It is more acute and more dangerous than when [the administration] came in.''
Administration officials acknowledge the low prospects for significant progress, but they say the US will keep plugging away at eliminating the problems still blocking a general framework for negotiations between Jordan and Israel. ``We're not giving up, but we're also realistic,'' a US official says.
Mr. Reagan took the unusual step this week of criticizing Israel for its harsh handling of the riots. The US also abstained from a vote on a UN Security Council resolution deploring Israeli actions, a move taken as a sign of displeasure with Israel. The US normally votes against such resolutions.
Harold Saunders, a former State Department official who participated in the Camp David negotiations under the Carter administration, suggests that the basic question does not lie in how Israel has or has not dealt with the Palestinian riots but in the fact that the parties have missed many opportunities for a peaceful resolution of the conflict since the Camp David agreements were signed.
In Mr. Saunders's view, the Reagan administration still has an opportunity to move the Middle East problem off the back burner. He suggests a diplomatic strategy in which the US and the Soviets would try to put together some Arab offer of peace that would generate a debate during the Israeli election campaign.
One hopeful development that may affect long-term US policy, diplomatic observers say, is the rising concern among the American Jewish community about Israeli policy.
``American Jewry is less willing to accept what comes out of the political process in Israel,'' comments Alfred Moses, a lawyer who served as President Carter's liaison with the Jewish community. ``They are looking more critically at the identity of Jews with Israel and raising concern that the values important to American Jews are not ignored.''