THE 1970s were a time of wondrous achievement in Middle East diplomacy. Out of the October 1973 war Henry Kissinger fashioned disengagement agreements that Jimmy Carter parlayed into a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt and a framework for Palestinian autonomy. But the 1980s were as barren of progress as the preceding decade has been fruitful. The Reagan administration wasted eight precious years in essentially phony negotiations, to give an impression of activity when those involved knew very well t hat nothing was likely to come of it. So far, the Bush administration's record for Middle East diplomacy has been no better than its predecessor's. The Bush administration has tried a little harder, but to date its Middle East diplomacy has been ill thought out, clumsy, and half-hearted. The cautious billing that Secretary of State James Baker gave his recent Middle East swing - the beginning of a "protracted effort," he called it - hardly suggested a determination to make a breakthrough.
But the news that President Bush may soon visit the Middle East raises the hope that, this time, the administration is really serious about settling the Arab-Israeli dispute. If it is, it will have to be prepared to move quickly and to make a massive diplomatic assault on the issue, while the glow of military victory is still fresh. Anything else will be a waste of time.
A protracted negotiation is just what Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir wants. Mr. Shamir has not publicly rejected the territory-for-peace formulation advanced by Mr. Bush in his March 6 speech to Congress. His spokesmen have even made vague statements about Israeli ideas for a settlement and for lessening tensions with Arab neighbors. Plainly, Shamir doesn't want a confrontation with the US. He knows that Israel will need more US aid to boost its economy and enable it to give homes and jobs to the million or so Soviet Jews it expects over the next few years.
But this does not mean that the Israeli prime minister is ready to accept the idea of territory for peace, no more than is his rival for leadership in the Likud Party, Ariel Sharon. Both men oppose giving up any territory, Sharon vociferously so, Shamir more quietly. The main difference between the two is that Shamir at least likes the idea of peace, whereas Sharon seems indifferent to it.
For more than a decade, Shamir, Sharon, and others in the Likud leadership have been trying to gut the territorial half of the territory-for-peace equation of its meaning by settling Israelis throughout the occupied lands - settling them in such places and numbers that any Israeli government would find it politically impossible to uproot them, and unthinkable to abandon them to the mercies of Palestinian authority. Sharon calculated that 100,000 Israeli settlers would be needed; once that number was rea ched, he reasoned, there would be no going back to the pre-1967 war borders. Sometime in 1990, the 100,000 mark was attained.
Shamir's strategy is to entangle the US in a web of prolonged talks leading ultimately nowhere - just as he did in May 1989 - until the danger of Washington's applying serious muscle vanishes with the dawn of the 1992 US presidential year. If he succeeds in getting to 1992 without having to give up anything, it will bring him the bonus of an extra year of immunity from arm twisting, for 1993 is Israel's election year. This will push the next serious opportunity for Arab-Israeli peace negotiations back t o 1994.
And why should Shamir not stall? The PLO is discredited and there is no military threat to Israel on the horizon. Saddam Hussein's army has been put out of action and Egypt and Saudi Arabia are firmly locked into alliance with the US. Even Syria is edging closer to the American orbit, and the Soviets are no longer willing to offer Damascus an inexhaustible supply of weaponry. The danger of the Arabs going to war against Israel in the next few years is negligible. The only pressure Israel's government ha s to fear is the pressure that might come from Washington.
What makes this particular moment so propitious for an all-out diplomatic effort in the Middle East is not just the US's crushing victory over Saddam. It is also that Washington has more leverage now than it ever had before - and may ever have again - with both Arabs and Israelis. Both sides need our arms and our political and military backing, and Israel badly needs our economic aid as well. Unless the president is ready to use that leverage to the full and to push hard and fast for an Arab-Israeli s ettlement, he shouldn't delude himself or the American public with the belief that the Desert Storm victory has brought prospects for peace in the Middle East any nearer.
If the US isn't ready to go all-out for peace in the Middle East, let it acknowledge that the show is off until 1994.