EVER since Jimmy Carter played midwife to the Camp David accords in 1979, the United States has worked hard to bring lasting peace to the Middle East. Thus the historic agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) announced last week carries a tinge of irony: It was achieved in Norway, without any high-ranking US diplomats in sight.
The US government was aware that secret talks were going on far from the comprehensive, public Middle East peace negotiations in Washington. But Secretary of State Warren Christopher acknowledged in a broadcast interview over the weekend that the US played only a peripheral role in helping along the Norway agreement.
That didn't necessarily bother him. Secretary Christopher said the US was ``pleasantly surprised'' that the backdoor Oslo discussions made the progress they did.
And, in a larger sense, the US had much to do with the tentative Israeli-PLO rapprochement. For one thing, the formula for limited Palestinian self-government resembles proposals put together in the past by US diplomats.
For another, without the effort then-Secretary of State James Baker III put into establishing open Middle East talks in the wake of the Gulf war, the atmosphere might not have been right for Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO head Yasir Arafat to gamble on working together.
If nothing else, the US-brokered overt talks may have put pressure on Mr. Arafat to accept something less than his long-stated goal of a Palestinian state.
The Washington-sponsored negotiations are broad in scope, featuring bilateral talks between Israel and Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon, as well as Israeli-Palestinian meetings. Discussions between Israel and Syria, in particular, seemed to be going well. The Palestinians thus risked being left at the station as the Middle East peace train rolled out without them.
``There has been a lot of informal pressure on the Palestinians,'' says Kenneth Stein, director of the Middle East Research Program at Emory University in Atlanta and author of a recent book on Middle East peace negotiations.
The role the US should play now, says Dr. Stein, is to keep this dynamic going. By pushing for progress in the bilateral Israel-Syria and Israel-Jordan negotiations, as well as in multilateral talks dealing with such issues as Mideast water rights, the US can make sure that the crucial Israel-Palestinian dialogue keeps moving along.
Right now, though, the Washington Middle East talks seem to have hit the doldrums. With the current round set to end this week, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in Washington are just going through the motions, since their role has been superseded by the Oslo agreement. And no breakthrough appears imminent in the Israeli-Syrian standoff over the Golan Heights.
RECENTLY, Syrian officials had hinted that this week they might come to terms with Israel over withdrawal from the strategic Golan Heights ground captured by Israeli forces in the 1967 war, and occupied ever since. But both Syrian negotiator Muwaffaq al-Allaf and his Israeli counterpart, Itamar Rabinovich, now say it is unlikely that they will be able to hammer out a deal in time for a proposed Sept. 13 White House signing ceremony.
The problem seems to be that while both Syria and Israel want to walk towards the same middle ground, neither appears willing to take the first step to get there. Israel won't talk about the extent of its withdrawal from the Golan until Syria agrees to a full peace, including commercial and diplomatic ties. Syria, for its part, says it will not talk about peace terms until Israel says it is ready to withdraw.
``They insist on hearing an Israeli commitment to what they have in mind, while remaining vague on what are our main concerns,'' Mr. Rabinovich said after the end of negotiations in Washington on Tuesday.
Israel, itself, might well stall the Syrians, however, considering that it already has an historic pact with its enemy, the PLO, to digest. The agreement with the PLO faces significant hard-line opposition in Israel - though not as much as Arafat faces from his own radicals. Israeli officials may thus feel they want to concentrate on Palestinian relations for the moment, and leave the Syrians for later.
The Oslo pact still confronts significant obstacles. Even if Arafat can head off the revolt of hard-line Palestinian elements and Rabin can quiet the objections of the conservative Likud opposition, there is the question of paying for the establishment of Palestinian government institutions - an expensive proposition.
That is one area in which the US is likely to help out, both as contributor and fund-raiser. Dunning up contributions for the Gulf war has given the US experience in walking around the Middle East with hat in hand, looking for money from relatively wealthy Gulf oil states.
Of course, US policy still officially rules out direct contact with the PLO. Brief contacts launched at the end of the Reagan presidency ended when a hard-line PLO faction launched a terror attack on an Israeli beach.
But if Israel and the PLO formally recognize each other - as appears likely as of this writing - a US dialogue with PLO leaders will surely follow.