THE United States, as the only power able to influence both sides in the Arab-Israeli conflict, could not stand idly by as Palestinian unrest in the occupied territories met only an intensifying Israeli military crackdown. Though it took most of the '80s for the Reagan administration to launch and promote a major Middle East peace initiative, Secretary of State George Shultz is fast making up for lost time by his energetic advocacy of the current US proposal. Convinced of its fairness and holding rock-firm against Israeli pressure to alter it, Mr. Shultz appears determined to make the plan succeed despite the heavy odds against it. He sees the lack of any formal rejection of the plan, a point of politeness that might easily discourage a less determined broker, as reason enough to press ahead. Shultz knows that most of the resistance and political maneuvering he encounters mask an earnest wish by all parties for a settlement that will someday allow them to live in peace. A more stabilized Middle East is also very much in the US national interest. Accordingly, Shultz is to begin a new round of regional talks on the US proposal with a stop in Israel on Easter Sunday.
The US plan, which calls for Palestinian self-rule in the territories, coupled with negotiations over the lands' final status, is far from perfect. But it is the only game on the table, and no player would start with an unfair advantage.
The pressure to compromise is particularly strong on the divided government of Israel. During his recent US visit, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir underscored anew his Likud Party's strong opposition both to an international conference approach to talks and to any further exchange of land for peace. Both positions are nonstarters.
Mr. Shamir has been particularly critical of Secretary Shultz's decision to meet last weekend with two Palestinian-American professors who are members of the Palestine National Council, in effect the legislative arm of the Palestine Liberation Organization. The US pledged in 1975 it would neither talk with nor recognize the PLO, but it regards the council as separate. The Shultz move was a conciliatory step in the right direction; it may open the way for him to meet with PLO-affiliated Palestinians who refused, under orders from Yasser Arafat, to meet with him on his February trip. Though Israel and the US favor a joint Palestinian-Jordanian delegation at the peace talks, the Palestinians in the territories increasingly press for their own spokesman.
Israel readily admits it could be dragged into an even bloodier confrontation with Palestinians on the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The death toll from the nearly four months of demonstrations includes 119 Palestinians and one Israeli soldier. Another 4,000 Palestinians have been arrested. Curfews and press bans are in effect.
Israeli officials insist they will reestablish order, whatever the cost. Security is their prime concern. Yet Israel knows that military repression has only encouraged more resistance and may be pulling both sides further away from successful peace negotiations. Stateless Palestinians are not about to be intimidated into docile behavior, and Israelis concede that achieving order in the territories is not enough. They, too, want a lasting peace.
The question is whether the Israelis are willing to give up enough to get such a peace. If the US, as Israel's best friend, can't make the point, who can?