SECRETARY of State George Shultz has been in the Middle East for the fourth time this year stirring the same old pot. His avowed purpose, in the face of universal skepticism, was to demonstrate how steadfastly the United States is engaged in the search for peace. This is reasonable after six months of the Palestinian uprising that spurred Mr. Shultz to renewed activity in the first place. Baffling about it, however, is the contradiction between what the administration says and what it has been doing. To be sure, in dealing with one of the two chief actors in this drama, the Palestinians, the US is immobile, having locked itself into nonrecognition of the Palestine Liberation Organization. The PLO has the key, in acceptance of UN Security Council Resolution 242 and its principle of exchanging land for peace. But the PLO has been too confused or disunited to open the door.
The mystery is Washington's dealings with Israel. While condemning Israeli measures in the West Bank and Gaza, the administration has, in effect, excused and rewarded them.
Washington's objections to Israeli policies go back a long way. It has opposed Israeli sovereignty or control over the West Bank and Gaza (as well as formation of a Palestinian state) and demands Israeli withdrawal. Jewish settlements are to be frozen and may not remain territorial outposts. Israel's annexation of the Golan Heights is null and void and the final status of Jerusalem is still to be negotiated. Emphasizing the Palestinians' right to genuine self-rule, as opposed to the pale imitation offered by former Prime Minister Menachem Begin and current Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, Shultz on his latest trip declared, ``There can be no settlement without addressing legitimate Palestinian political rights.'' No US official had ever added ``political'' to the ``legitimate rights'' acknowledged by all at Camp David.
Unlike Israel, the US considers the West Bank and Gaza to be territories occupied in war and their inhabitants covered by the 1949 Geneva Convention on the protection of civil population. Since the Palestinian uprising began last December, Washington has protested to Israel privately and publicly against violations of the convention. These include excessive use of force against demonstrators and innocent bystanders, collective punishment, administrative detention, and deportation.
Over the years, hundreds of houses belonging to families of dissidents have been demolished. Something like 5,000 so-called security risks are now in ``detention camps'' without legal charge, let alone trial. Their six-month terms may be extended indefinitely by army order. At least 20 Palestinians have been summarily deported, and right-wing extremists in Israel speak of wholesale population transfer to get rid of the people and the problem together.
Shultz warmly advocates improving the quality of life and family reunification. But if Washington's insistence has had any effect it is not visible to the naked eye. Israeli authorities continue acting out the often-fatal variations of their ``force, might, and beatings'' policy in the name of security. They are expelling a Palestinian American, Mubarak Awad, who has advocated nonviolent civil disobedience.
Administration warnings of the dire consequences for Israel have shaded into melodrama. Shultz hears ``the ticking demographic time bomb of the Arab people under occupation'' and adds that the best security is peace in the neighborhood. President Reagan sees Israel's policy drifting dangerously. ``Extremist forces will gain strength at the expense of the moderates,'' he says, ``at the very moment that proliferating ballistic missiles and chemical weapons are creating a far more ominous military environment.'' The US wants to move toward peace under the umbrella of an international conference. Shamir does not.
How to explain the official Israeli attitude? The Jerusalem Post's excellent correspondent in Washington, Wolf Blitzer, reported that Shamir's performance ``suggests to American officials that the Prime Minister is simply more interested in retaining Judea and Samaria than in achieving peace and obtaining tangible, political support from Washington.''
Nevertheless, the support is forthcoming. With Israeli public opinion trending toward Shamir's Likud, in an election year, it would be too much to expect a politician to abandon a program that obviously pays, however short the run. In April, when violent confrontation in the West Bank and Gaza was at its height, President Reagan formally designated Israel a ``major non-NATO ally.'' This codified intimate cooperation and aid that had developed over recent years in many strategic fields - military, technical, economic, political, and intelligence. The Memorandum of Agreement was signed, at Shamir's request, in the context of Israel's 40th anniversary celebration. Its term of five years, renewable automatically, was meant, as Shultz explained, to institutionalize the Israeli-American relationship by linking both countries' bureaucracies through and beyond the next presidential term. Add the fact that the annual US grant of $3 billion in economic and military aid to Israel is now so routine that the Israeli budget counts on it as revenue. The US veto in the UN Security Council shields Israel from international criticism.
What should Washington be doing? Arabs and others urge US pressure. This is wrong for several reasons. Imposing political solutions on sovereign nations is fraught with unpredictable and undesirable consequences. The US does have a special concern for Israel based on sentiment, history, and present political reality. And this support is doubly understandable in the absence of a clear Arab peace program. American persuasion must be directed to both parties. After all, regional peace must be based on regional consensus.
As for Israel, US influence has been used effectively in recent years to promote economic reform and to halt the megalomania of the Lavi fighter aircraft project. That influence is now called for, not to make a choice for the people of Israel but to prompt them to make their own, and to make it between clear alternatives of peace and conflict. The political picture there, with the election this fall, is one of confusion, division, and drift. As things stand, the vote would change nothing. The US cannot be an uninterested spectator but should make it clear in all the many ways available beyond words that Likud's policy is disastrous and that only the peacemakers can count on continued American support.
Richard C. Hottelet, a longtime CBS United Nations correspondent, writes on foreign affairs. He recently returned from the Middle East.