GEORGE SHULTZ has learned a lot since his first trip to the Middle East as secretary of state back in April of 1983. At that time, he was trying to sell President Reagan's Middle East peace plan of December 1982. It was a perfectly good plan, in theory, but in 1983 it didn't have a prayer of success, for three reasons.
It called for Israel to give up most of the occupied territories. American diplomacy had not brought Syria and the Soviets into the project in advance of the launching. It assumed that US persuasion might actually get things moving as it once did at Camp David, with quick results to be expected.
All of that, back in 1983, was pie in the sky. Israel at that time had not the slightest idea of ever giving up ownership of the occupied territories.
None of the other Arabs involved in the 1983 plan would dare or dream of a settlement that was not acceptable to Syria.
Camp David was one thing. It involved only Egypt and Israel. Egypt is an Arab country in language and religion, but not ethnically or geographically. The fact that President Carter was, just barely, able to persuade Egypt and Israel to a separate peace did not provide a precedent for what might be done between Israel and the true Arabs of Arabia.
Mr. Shultz was shaken by his 1983 failure. He did eventually persuade Israel to pull its troops back out of most of Lebanon, but only after popular sentiment in Israel had turned against the costs of the continued occupation. He failed totally to get a peace agreement between Israel and Lebanon, because the terms were not acceptable to Syria.
This time everything is different.
Syria has been consulted. So, too, has the Soviet Union. The plan contemplates a general conference as an opening forum. The Soviets will be in the wings to look after the interests of their client, Syria. Substantial segments of the Jewish community, both in Israel and in the United States, are openly in favor of the exchange of land for peace.
And, above all, Mr. Shultz is now a realist about timetables.
He went to the Middle East a month ago. He visited Syria, Jordan, and Egypt in addition to Israel. He was followed by his Middle East expert, Philip Habib. He is going back on April 3. And the most he seriously expects to get out of all this travel during the remaining nine months of his tenure as secretary of state is a possibility of the convening of a conference sometime during the next administration.
His real goal this time is to get all concerned, but most particularly the Israelis, to think seriously about the possibility someday of living in peace with one another.
The violence and bloodshed in Gaza and on the West Bank have shaken up the thinking of all concerned. Palestinians, mostly youths and some of them women, are being killed by Israelis at a faster rate than ever. At the beginning, it was usually one Palestinian a day. Now four a day is more common. Israel has already arrested, by its own admission, more than 4,000 Palestinians, in the hope of rounding up all the leaders. But new leaders keep springing forward.
Add another new factor. Mr. Shultz has dared to have a private talk with two American Arabs who are members of the Palestine National Council, which acts as an informal gathering of leaders of the Palestine movement. It is not formally part of the Palestine Liberation Organization, but is associated with it.
Mr. Shultz's act of daring to talk to two members of that group in defiance of the vociferous protests of the Shamir regime in Israel clears the way for his ultimate successor to open more formal talks with the leading Palestinians.
Mr. Shultz will regard his Middle East efforts a success if it leaves to his successor next January a new situation in which Arabs and Israelis might actually be heading toward the conference table. This is an act of high statesmanship on the part of an earnest, decent, dedicated guy named George Shultz.