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Arab-Israeli issues: a convoluted peace process

WILL the Arab-Israeli question be near the top of the Reagan administration's agenda during the President's second term? This is the hope of some of the United States' strongest allies in the Arab world. Senior diplomats from Egypt and other Arab countries friendly to the US warn that further years of impasse on the Palestinian issue could lead to a growth of extremism throughout the Middle East.

In reality, however, the chances still appear slim that the US will heed such warnings of (relatively) long-term doom. Arab-Israeli issues are nowhere near the top of a foreign-policy agenda dominated by US-Soviet concerns.

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From the Arab side, meanwhile, it seems quite unlikely the Arab governments will produce the kind of ''dramatic gesture'' that might force the administration to take notice of what they are saying. There is no Arab military surprise anywhere on the horizon which might (like the 1973 offensive) force the US into active Mideast peacemaking. And a peaceful gesture as dramatic as President Anwar Sadat's 1977 visit to Jerusalem seems unlikely in today's Arab world.

America's Arab friends - Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia - are cautious people these days. They feel hard-pressed between the high bets they have placed on US peacemaking efforts and the US concurrent shift into strengthening its strategic alliance with Israel. They all face criticism from domestic opponents that their reliance on the US has not brought the expected gains. Externally, they have to take into account the views of Syria, whose hard-line anti-American rhetoric is backed by a position of considerable regional strength.

Despite these constraints, both Egypt and Jordan have been making moves in recent weeks which their leaders hope will clear the way toward a resumption of Arab-Israeli peace efforts. The first of these moves came in late September, when Jordan announced that it was restoring the diplomatic relations with Egypt which had been broken when Egypt signed its peace treaty with Israel back in 1979.

Jordan's King Hussein was meanwhile redoubling his advice to PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat that he should hurry in convening the PLO's National Council, regardless of the Syrians' opposition to this step. At the end of November, the National Council duly opened in Jordan's capital, Amman, to a speech from none other than Hussein.

King Hussein urged the council, which is the PLO's supreme policymaking body, to mandate the PLO leadership to join him in a diplomatic effort aimed at liberating the West Bank and Gaza from Israeli occupation.

The council turned down his suggestion that this effort start with the PLO's acceptance of UN Security Council Resolution 242. But Jordanian sources stress that this Palestinian position did not, in itself, pose an insuperable obstacle to his efforts. They saw a strong message coming out of the council that both sides had reaffirmed the necessity of working closely with the other.

Within a few days, Hussein was on his way to Egypt. A joint Jordanian-Egyptian communique issued at the end of that visit, on Dec. 3, reaffirmed the urgency of addressing the occupied-territories issue, and expressed the interest of both sides in convening an international conference on the Arab-Israeli question.

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Some optimists in Washington have since expressed hope that a moderate Egyptian-Jordanian-PLO axis is shaping up, which might be prepared openly to confront the Syrians, and to move toward a resolution of the Palestinian problem along lines acceptable to the US.

As usual in the Middle East things are not as straightforward as they appear. All the parties concerned still stress they have to take Syria into account. Thus, the PLO and Jordan now want to amend the Arab summit resolution of 1974 which deemed the PLO the ''sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people,'' to allow for joint representation in any upcoming peace talks. But they would still prefer to have this modification endorsed by another Arab summit. Would the Syrians agree to such a change? The Syrian leadership, which is busy preparing for its own crucial leadership convention right now, has yet to declare its view.

Would the pro-American Arabs be prepared to continue moves toward a peace process even against Syria's wishes? Hard to say. Hard to say, too, whether they can steer through this thicket soon enough to get a unified peace proposal onto President Reagan's desk before he becomes entangled in mid- or late-term politics.

Senior Egyptian diplomats remain clear, however, on the urgency of addressing the issue. They point out that, though the various Arab parties' peace proposals differ in many aspects, at least they all still are peace proposals. ''This is a historic opportunity for creative diplomacy,'' they say. ''But it will not last forever.''

Helena Cobban is a free-lance writer who was based in the Middle East from 1976 to 1981.

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