A flurry of apparently rejectionist statements from Arab leaders seems designed to convey a double message to the Reagan administration as it embarks on its most serious Mideast diplomatic effort since the end of the 1982 Lebanon war. First: United States Secretary of State George Shultz will have to offer the Arabs more than has been advertised so far to enlist their backing for new peace talks during his visit beginning Thursday.
Second: Although deeply skeptical, Arab leaders still hold out hope that Mr. Shultz's mediation mission will succeed. They do not plan to dismiss his proposals sight unseen.
The first part of the message has generated the most headlines with the approach of the Shultz mission, which follows his Feb. 21-23 visit to Moscow. Even pro-Western Arab states have publicly rejected aspects of the package.
Specifically, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and a variety of Jordanian officials are saying any move to revive the limited ``Palestinian autonomy'' concept agreed to at the 1978 Camp David summit would be a non-starter. They emphasize instead the need for an overall Mideast solution, taking into account Palestinian demands for self-determination.
``This is a real problem,'' comments a Western diplomat here. ``Although the Americans are going to great lengths to avoid using the phrase `Palestinian autonomy' to describe the Shultz mission, it is clear to the Arabs and everyone else that they are in effect talking about a Camp David-like idea.'' The Palestine Liberation Organization - whose tacit agreement is seen by diplomats as important for a Mideast compromise - also has cautioned against revival of the autonomy idea.
A top political aide to PLO leader Yasser Arafat told a London-based journal, the Mideast Mirror, earlier this week that the organization would ``welcome'' any US move toward assuring ``self-determination for the Palestinians.'' But, said PLO official Salah Khalaf, Shultz likely would be peddling ``the concept of autonomy - to contain the current uprising'' against the Israelis.
Western diplomats here note that to go much beyond the autonomy idea, Shultz must find a way around strenuous opposition from Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. This, they say, seems unlikely.
Yet along with the Arabs' misgivings and skepticism, these diplomats note, there seems an unprecedented degree of willingness among Arab leaders to give the Shultz mission the benefit of the doubt until it is tried and tested. This is seen by Western diplomats as a reflection of Arab concern over the violence in West Bank and Gaza, an upheaval that seems to reflect anger not only at Israeli policy but at the Arab political establishment.
``It is time for all of us to reassess,'' Jordan's King Hussein said in a recent interview with two American reporters in his nation's capital. He said the Palestinian unrest had been ``a jolt'' to the Arab establishment, a move to ``lessen their reliance on others outside'' the territories.
In remarks to reporters in Cairo this week, President Mubarak made clear his opposition to revival of the Camp David autonomy accords. But he did not rule out consideration of an autonomy accord if this were made part of an ``overall settlement of the [Arab-Israeli] problem.''
He implied that any autonomy discussions should be formally disassociated from the Camp David framework. ``We must stay away,'' he said, ``from any words or provisions that were in the Camp David agreements because they are outdated and finished.'' The implication, say diplomats and other Mideast analysts here, is that if Shultz can win Israeli agreement on making ``autonomy'' a step toward greater long-term concessions to the Palestinians, he is likely to get a receptive hearing in the Arab world.