Despite intensive United States' mediation, Israel and its Arab neighbors are poles apart on the two most important items on the Middle East agenda: pulling foreign troops out of Lebanon and creating a Palestinian homeland.
US diplomats Philip Habib and Morris Draper have been shuttling around the Middle East the past week, working to advance negotiations on these inextricably linked issues. Many obstacles remain in their way.
The Lebanon problem is of recent vintage. If unresolved, it could lead to reignition of the violence that rocked the country last summer. The Palestinian homeland problem goes back decades and is one of the prime causes of instability in the region, especially in Lebanon.
Because of Lebanon's large Palestinian population (an estimated 600,000 refugees from territory Israel now controls) and the presence of Palestine Liberation Organization guerrillas in the east and north of the country, most diplomats recognize that peace in Lebanon will not be achieved without a permanent spot for the Palestinians.
The American envoys are trying to build on their diplomatic success of last summer, which prevented a destructive final assault on the PLO by the Israeli Army and removed the organization from Beirut. That was only a stopgap solution. Israeli, Syrian, and PLO forces remain poised in Lebanon. There is a danger that , without continued progress through diplomatic channels this winter, by next spring Lebanon could erupt again.
Mr. Habib is said to be optimistic, however. Egyptian officials Nov. 28 reported that he had told them he believes he can win an agreement to begin a pullback of Israeli, Syrian, and PLO soldiers in Lebanon by the new year. That would require security guarantees for Israel and Syria and fulfillment of at least minimum political demands by the PLO.
Working on the political part of the problem, Habib is trying to find a way of creating a nonbelligerent Palestinian homeland in association with the Kingdom of Jordan. This goal was outlined in President Reagan's Sept. 1 peace proposal for the Middle East.
Habib's meeting with Jordan's King Hussein in Amman last week has increased speculation that the monarch may be getting ready to step into the foreground to try to open negotiations with Israel over the occupied West Bank and Gaza. It will be difficult and dangerous for the King to step very far, however, even in the event he is backed by the PLO and other Arab countries. But because the US refuses to consider an independent Palestinian state, Mr. Reagan's proposed West Bank/Jordan confederation seems the only viable diplomatic course.
Even as the US diplomats pursue these goals, Israel's position is dead set against concessions on either matter.
Israeli officials this week said they will not talk to the Lebanese about removing Israeli troops unless the Lebanese agree to political negotiations as well. These negotiations would have to be held in Beirut and Jerusalem, the Israelis say. Removing Israeli soldiers from Lebanon without a peace treaty, they add, would contradict the aims of Israel's costly invasion of Lebanon last summer.
The Lebanese counter that security could be ensured by expanding the French-Italian-American peacekeeping force in their country. The Lebanese government Nov. 29 made a formal request to Western powers to send more troops for this purpose. The Lebanese say, moreover, that the issue is one of foreign military forces on their soil. They argue that to broaden negotiations to the political level - and to meet in a controversial location like Jerusalem - is beyond Lebanon's capability at this time.
It seems unlikely progress on this issue will be made until Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin's return visit to Washington in January - and then only if he is persuaded by President Reagan.
On the issue of a Palestinian homeland, the government has rejected Reagan's proposed West Bank/Jordan confederation, saying Israel will not give up any of this territory. The Israeli government says the West Bank and Gaza are part of the biblically ordained Land of Israel.
Israel contends that Jordan is already a Palestinian state (since a majority of its population is Palestinian) and another is not needed.
It is doubtful King Hussein could pursue the Reagan goal unilaterally. The King and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat met in Amman Nov. 28 in the wake of a negative reaction to the Reagan plan by the Palestine Central Committee.
(But a PLO official in Amman said Nov. 29 that King Hussein will ask Reagan if he is willing to meet a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation for peace talks, Reuters reports. The official emphasized the PLO was not giving Hussein a mandate to speak for it, but the move is seen as indicating the PLO is willing to give the King the green light to explore options when he visits Washington.)