IF they focus only on the guilty and the innocent, the five Central American signatories to the Arias peace plan will miss a vital opportunity. At their meeting Friday, renewed effort to make the plan succeed will be more important than assessing blame for the current stalemate. In recent weeks the plan has been mired in skepticism and bickering. Cease-fire talks in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala have broken down. Outside aid to insurgent forces continues.
Yet the Central American leaders are unlikely to shelve the plan; they do not want to be blamed for its failure. Nor do they, with the possible exception of the President of Honduras, want to see Congress approve a new round of US aid for the contras. A vote is set for early February.
The five Presidents are likely to extend the peace plan's deadlines, point to progress made, and stipulate what each nation must do to comply. The plan's architect, Oscar Arias S'anchez, who recently won the Nobel Peace Prize, can add direction from a strengthened position.
To get the peace plan back on track, both sides will have to work harder and concede more. Understandably, neither wants to yield first. Imaginative and simultaneous dealmaking is in order.
The Sandinistas have made some concessions: a freer press, more political party activity, and a partial political amnesty. Much more internal democratization is needed. Indirect cease-fire talks broke down when the contras insisted on face-to-face discussions; the Sandinistas ought to give on that point. More distressing to the US and its interest in the hemisphere's security are persistent reports of continued aid from Managua to El Salvador's Marxist guerrillas and from Moscow to Managua.
The United States, whose cooperation is vital to Central American peace, must do more to show that it really wants the plan to succeed. Despite its concern for regional security, the Reagan administration appears uninterested in talking directly either with the Sandinistas or the Soviets on the subject.
Unlike its foreign policy in a number of other areas, the administration's Central American policy has become a captive of right-wing ideologues. These see the Sandinistas as more determined to break than to keep the treaty. They view increased US aid to the contras as the only way to modify Sandinista behavior.
Last week, US Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams and others visited four of the five signatories, urging them to blame the Sandinistas fully for the treaty's unraveling. Such an unjustified tilt undermines the Arias plan.
The administration wants to continue using Honduras as a base for the contras; this leaves Honduras out of compliance with the treaty. Last week Honduras at first refused to allow international inspectors to visit its military bases. Later, presumably at US urging, Honduras fortunately changed its policy to allow access. The action came too late for the inspectors, but it helps move Honduras toward compliance with the treaty's call for a halt to outside help to rebel forces.
The US is not a party to the peace treaty. Yet its continued support of the contras violates the treaty's intent. The chief value of contra aid is as a bargaining chip.
If the US is ready now, as it says, to stop US aid to the rebels in Afghanistan when Soviet troops actually begin to withdraw, why not consider a similar quid pro quo regarding Nicaragua?
Why couldn't the United States and the Sandinistas work out a simultaneous arrangement: Managua would halt aid to Salvadorean guerrillas, perhaps even lift the state of siege in Nicaragua and grant full political amnesty; in return, the US would halt contra aid.
Such a swap would fit the spirit of the plan. So would some agreement with the Soviets on their aid to Nicaragua. Mikhail Gorbachev's intriguing offer to discuss the issue has not been pursued. Yet if Mr. Gorbachev wants a START agreement, as he says, why not explore a linking of the two issues? The US should also consider talking with the Soviets about a three- to six-month moratorium on superpower aid to the region. The US has traditionally shied away from such dealmaking, but it could give the peace process a needed fresh chance.
More give from all sides is needed to make the Arias treaty work. Instead of wringing hands over the impossibility of the task, concerned leaders must find ways to get on with the job.