THE Arab world, led by Egypt and Syria, is poised to show US Secretary of State Warren Christopher that there can be no further progress toward Middle East peace until Israel cooperates in solving the Palestinian problem.
During Mr. Christopher's trip here this week, Arab nations will seek to discuss the continued expansion of Jewish settlements and the redeployment of Israeli soldiers on the occupied West Bank as a prelude to Palestinian elections.
Israel can no longer hope - as it did in the early days of the peace process - that Arab nations would pressure Palestinians to accept a compromise short of an independent Palestinian state.
As far as talks between Israel and Syria go, ``the problem is not so much with the solution as with the negotiations,'' said Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin. Israel and Syria have reached an understanding that Israel would withdraw from the Golan Heights in return for guarantees of lasting peace from Syria. But the two sides have not succeeded in building a framework for the agreement.
``With the Palestinians it is the other way round: The problem is with the solution rather than the negotiations,'' Mr. Beilin added. There are ongoing talks between Israel and the Palestinians, but they have so far been unable to find a settlement.
Mr. Christopher, who Israeli officials say failed to advance the Israel-Syria peace track with seven shuttles to the region last year, will face a hard-line mood in Cairo regarding Israel; pessimism in Jerusalem, particularly about peace with Syria; and a general commitment to peace but little substance in Damascus.
There are three factors that make Israel vulnerable to being outmaneuvered in negotiations: Israel concedes that striking a land-for-peace deal with Syria is the key to peace in the Middle East. Second, Israel has been unable to break the impasse with the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Third, Israel refuses to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Egypt has succeeded in winning the support of moderate Arab states for its insistence that Israel should sign the NPT.
``Let's hope that, at least, there will be resumption of the talks [between Israeli and Syria] in Washington,'' said a weary Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin March 7.
Western diplomats are also concerned that the impasse in PLO-Israel negotiations could give rise to new resistance and conflict.
``You could see the situation halt in its tracks .... and that could lead to a reignition of an intifadah-like situation,'' a US official warned.
Christopher will also face Israeli and Arab disillusionment over the prospect of cuts in US aid to the Middle East: A congressional subcommittee moved recently to reduce US debt forgiveness to Jordan from $275 million to $50 million.
There is consensus in Israeli political circles that an agreement between Israel and Syria would have to be all but tied up by mid-year if it is to be implemented before 1996 elections in the US and Israel.
Israeli officials insist they have compromised as much as they can toward peace with Syria, and that the ball is now in Syria's court.
Syria's President Hafez al-Assad is sticking to his insistence on Israel's unconditional withdrawal from the Golan Heights before the details of the deal can be discussed.
But Israeli Prime Minister Rabin is prepared for only a symbolic withdrawal from a part of the Golan to test Syria's resolve for a lasting peace deal.
``We want only a very small withdrawal in the beginning and to put it to a test for two-and-a-half to three years.... to test the full normalization, embassies, and an open border,'' Mr. Rabin told supporters.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Moussa responded that Rabin's offer was ``unacceptable.''
``A country cannot be put under a test,'' said Mr. Moussa.
Rabin yesterday told a meeting of American Reform Rabbis in Jerusalem that he stood firm on the plan to station US troops on the Golan Heights in the event of a land-for-peace deal with Syria.
Beilin said that he would see Christopher's visit as successful if negotiations between Israel and Syria - which have been effectively frozen since December - were resumed at a high level. ``Then we would only need a few months to cut the deal ... that's why this visit is so important,'' Beilin said.