AGAINST the background of continuing violence in Israel's occupied territories, Secretary of State George Shultz's ongoing Middle East shuttle diplomacy appears to make perfect sense. With more Palestinians dying each day, the need for a peace settlement in that troubled region is perhaps more pressing now than at any time since President Reagan took office. But in concentrating his energies on the Middle East, Mr. Shultz risks distracting both himself and the administration from the equally crucial, and far more resolvable, problems of arms control. As a consequence, a START treaty reducing long-range strategic missiles by half may not be finished before Mr. Reagan leaves office.
From a moral perspective, it is difficult for the United States to ignore the situation in the Middle East. As the primary supporter of Israel, and as a nation with close ties to Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, the US alone may possess enough leverage to work out a settlement between the Israeli government and the Palestinian people. To make no effort to exploit this influence and ease the confrontation in the occupied territories would be indefensible. Shultz no doubt feels both a personal and professional obligation to try to do something, anything, to end the violence.
Yet it is highly unlikely that during its last eight months the Reagan administration can initiate and sustain a peace process that will produce concrete results. To date, Shultz has met with little success during his trips to the Middle East. But even if he did manage to get negotiations going on his proposed peace plan, election-year politics and the beginning of a new administration would almost certainly derail US participation in the talks.
The US-Soviet arms control process, in contrast, has achieved a truly historic momentum. The signing of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty is testimony to what can be achieved when the superpowers bargain energetically. On the American side, much of the dynamism that has characterized recent negotiations can be attributed to Shultz.
By mastering the details of the arms control talks; by cultivating a productive working relationship with his Soviet counterpart, Eduard Shevardnadze; and by working to overcome bureaucratic obstacles in Washington, Shultz deserves much of the credit for the progress made over the last two years. To wrap up the INF Treaty in time to be signed at the Washington summit, for example, the secretary worked almost full time on the problem, traveling to Moscow in October and Geneva in November. During both trips, he spent many long hours personally haggling with Soviet officials over the final details of the agreement.
If President Reagan hopes to build on the success of INF and complete the START treaty before leaving office, he will again need the undivided time and energy of his secretary of state. Because of the complexity of negotiating a treaty to cut long-range missiles by half, there remain numerous points of contention between the US and Soviet negotiators. Both sides agree, however, that none of these points pose insurmountable obstacles. After talks on START held in Moscow three months ago, Foreign Minister Shevardnadze declared, ``After a sober, sensible, and realistic assessment of the state of affairs, we have come to the conclusion that there are no unresolvable problems.'' Shultz echoed this assessment. A START treaty, he said, is ``more probable than I thought it would be.''
Initially, both sides hoped to complete the agreement in time for President Reagan's trip to Moscow; now, completion by early fall appears to be a more realistic goal.
Yet as committed as Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev are to drastic cuts in long-range nuclear weapons, the START negotiations are in deep trouble. The violence in the Middle East, coupled with the signing of an agreement on Afghanistan, has distracted both Washington and Moscow away from arms control in recent months. Unless the completion of START becomes the top diplomatic priority of Shultz and Mr. Shevardnadze, the agreement may not be finished when Reagan leaves office.
Failure to complete START would be a major setback to the cause of arms control. Today, relations between the US and the Soviet Union are benefiting from the combination of an US president with impeccable anticommunist credentials and a Soviet leader eager to make gains in arms control to strengthen his domestic position. These conditions may not be replicated for years to come. A Democratic president would, as usual, have difficulty pursuing arms control in the face of skepticism from conservatives who doubt that Democrats can be tough enough at the negotiating table. With his reputation as a moderate, George Bush might also encounter problems if he were left with the job of completing START.
In addition, there is the outside possibility that Mr. Gorbachev will not last in power. Even if he does remain the top man in the Kremlin, there is no guarantee that he will exhibit the same flexibility that currently characterizes his approach to cuts in long-range weapons.
Real momentum in the realm of arms control is rare. A year from now, the momentum behind START could be lost, perhaps indefinitely. In the Middle East, on the other hand, there is little forward diplomatic movement. Only a new president, with four to eight years ahead of him, can hope to complete the long and frustrating job of working out a settlement between Israel and the Palestinians.
If Reagan and Shultz truly want to change the course of history and leave behind a legacy of peace, they must put aside the problems of the Middle East and concentrate their remaining time and energy on finishing START.
David Callahan is associate staff member of the Five College Program in Peace and World Security Studies, Amherst, Mass. He is currently writing a biography of Paul H. Nitze, who is a top arms control aide to Secretary of State Shultz.