Time is ripe, but US bid for Mideast peace faces huge obstacles

Tough Mideast political problems, some old, some new, are likely to complicate the Reagan Administration's bid to broker an Arab-Israeli peace settlement. In one key way, the time is ripe for the move, which became public early this week with US envoy Philip Habib's trip to Jordan: The explosion of Palestinian unrest in recent weeks has focused both Israeli officials and neighboring Arab states on the need for diplomatic moves to restore stability. But indications from Israel, Arab states, and analysts here are that obstacles to progress are enormous.

Full details of the American strategy have yet to be released - or perhaps, even finalized. Secretary of State George Shultz said Tuesday: ``We need to focus less on procedure than on substance, in order to show people that [negotiations] can meet their real concerns.''

Early signs are that Washington hopes to graft together elements of the still unimplemented ``Palestinian autonomy'' accord sealed with President Carter at the 1978 Camp David summit; Mr. Reagan's own 1982 embroidery on that plan; and current regional proposals for an international peace conference.

These, or similar, elements have been tried before, unsuccessfully. Among obstacles expected to complicate Mr. Habib's job are some familiar ones:

The Palestinian issue. This is the toughest problem of all. Reduced to its starkest, the question is: To whom does ancient Palestine belong? Is it the birthright of Jews, who, earlier this century, fled European anti-Semitism to redeem a 2000-year-old claim to a nation? Or, does it belong to local Arabs who (under Ottoman and British regimes) constituted the majority of Palestine's population by the time Israel was founded in 1948?

In recent years, the boundaries of 1948 Israel have become less at issue than the West Bank and Gaza areas, which came under Israeli rule in 1967. But by and large, the ownership dispute remains starkly resistant to compromise.

Focus on formulas. Mideast diplomats seem to have developed an ingrained instinct to stress form over substance.

Sometimes this tendency has revealed itself in the search for an untried organizational formula or venue merely to get Jews and Arabs talking to each other. Other times, the search has been for the perfectly acrobatic turn of phrase, like those included in the Camp David ``autonomy'' plan, that might allow both sides to accept a diplomatic pact or protocol.

The result, over four decades, has been a carousel of conferences and communiqu'es that have sometimes produced bits of progress toward Arab-Israeli peace. Most attempts at conferences have collapsed or failed to resolve any but superficial issues. And most communiqu'es have allowed Israelis and Arabs (and Americans) to posit wildly divergent interpretations of the same documents.

But most Mideast analysts feel that less familiar obstacles may represent the main challenge to the US attempt to revive Mideast peace moves. Among them:

A White House ``credibility gap.'' The Administration's diplomatic leverage could be undermined by the fact that Mr. Reagan will be out of the White House within the year, and that the past seven years have suggested he is a reluctant participant in Arab-Israeli matters.

Palestinian radicalization. The violence on the West Bank and in Gaza is seen by most local analysts as reflecting a deepened, grass-roots bitterness among Palestinians toward both Israeli rule and neighboring Arab states. If so, a US push to implement Camp David-style self-rule would likely be seen as too little, too late. And a renewed US effort to give Jordan a major political role on the West Bank might face strong local opposition.

Israeli uncertainties. Israel is now ruled by a misnamed ``national unity'' coalition between Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's right-wing Likud bloc and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres's more conciliatory Labor Party. But elections are due by the end of the year. Mr. Peres is ready to back moderate Arab moves for an international peace conference, and feels some Israeli concessions are necessary.

Mr. Shamir insists on bilateral talks with interested Arabs, favors a Palestinian autonomy plan based on Camp David, and would rule out anything risking eventual Palestinian statehood. Shamir's tougher line seems more appealing to Israeli voters at present. But only the election will tell. Meanwhile, Israel seems to lack the unified political voice necessary to take peace talks a major step forward.

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