US officials cling to slim hopes on Mideast. Shultz team sees absence of outright `no' as sign to keep pushing peace

A week of Middle East shuttle diplomacy by United States Secretary of State George Shultz has ended in a chorus of ``maybes.'' So far, no one has said ``no'' to the latest US peace plan for the region, hand-carried by Mr. Shultz to four Middle East capitals since last Thursday.

But deep divisions, hardened by three months of unrest in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza have also made endorsements of the Shultz plan hard to come by.

The latest setback for Shultz occurred Monday when sources familiar with Jordan doubted it could budge the Palestine Liberation Organization from its demand that only the PLO be allowed to represent Palestinians at peace talks.

One of the working assumptions embodied in his plan is that Palestinian side would be represented at a bargaining table by a team of Jordanians and non-PLO Palestinians. If the PLO holds to its demand for an independent role in the peace process, the chances of winning Israeli backing for the plan will diminish.

Shultz today concludes a week of consultations with Israeli and Arab leaders on the proposed two-stage peace plan that would be launched by an ``international opening'' as early as next month. The fact that none of the principle parties to the Arab-Israeli conflict has rejected the Shultz plan outright has left US officials feeling relatively upbeat and determined to press on.

A senior US official summarized four days of shuttle diplomacy saying ``We know the Egyptians are very interesed in what we're trying to do. So are the Jordanians. The Syrians are not rejecting it.''

The official said Shultz had not decided yet whether to draft a formal plan and insisted there was ``nothing on paper'' at this point. According to Israeli reports, Shultz presented a detailed plan to Foreign Minister Shimon Peres Monday. The official said a formal plan would be produced ``when we've heard enough that you can crystallize it.''

The next step in the process will take place when Shultz meets Jordan's King Hussein in London today. (Shultz met with Crown Prince Hassan in Amman). Officials traveling with Shultz say a decision will be made then whether to return to the Mideast before returning to the US.

US officials insist they have not taken King Hussein's absence from Amman as a slight. Instead, according to a prevalent interpretation, the cautious monarch was eager to delay his meeting with Shultz until Israel, Syria, and Egypt had weighed in with their views.

Shultz will next meet with Israeli Prime Minsiter Yitzhak Shamir either later this week or in Washington in mid-March. Mr. Shamir opposes the idea of an international conference and territorial concessions to advance the peace process, both Arab demands.

Shamir has opposed the accelerated timetable that would call for Palestinian elections by spring, and the start of negotiations on the final status of the territories by December.

But he is under pressure from his coalition partners and, increasingly, from American Jewish leaders now meeting in Jerusalem, who warn that the status quo in the territories has become untenable. US officials concede privately that one of the biggest obstacles they face is the unwillingness of many Israeli officials to negotiate under the pressure of the recent violent demonstrations.

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