IF the window of opportunity for peace in the Middle East is creaking open again, the Reagan administration will be cautious before leaping through it. The reason is that President Reagan has thrice been disappointed by the Arabs during his presidential term and will need to be convinced of their readiness to move forcefully now.
He also has difficulties on the Israeli side. The tough Menachem Begin government, which, like Richard Nixon with his opening to Communist China, was perhaps best politically placed to handle a dialogue with the Arabs, is no more. It has been replaced by a fragile coalition. For the new prime minister, Shimon Peres, the path to peace may be politically perilous.
When President Reagan first assumed office, he had a genuine desire to make progress in the Middle East. That desire was stimulated anew by the arrival in 1982 of George P. Shultz as secretary of state. Mr. Shultz had been head of the Bechtel Corporation and had spent much time in the Middle East involved with major construction projects. He had employed Palestinians. He thought they were talented people. He believed the problem of their displacement should somehow be solved.
The President and his secretary of state engaged in long discussions, talking through the options in the Middle East. From those talks emerged the President's September 1982 peace initiative. It was based on two key United Nations resolutions, 242 and 338, and the Camp David framework. It reaffirmed the concept of Israel's exchanging occupied territory for peace. Israel would get recognition and security. The Palestinians would get some kind of autonomy -- but not an independent state -- linked to Jordan.
Israeli reaction was stormy. But the administration always hoped that Israel could be brought along. Prime Minister Begin, after all, had made peace with Egypt and given up occupied territory. The United States believed that when an Arab leader stepped forward, the popular demand for peace in Israel would compel the Begin government to join in.
The Arab leader President Reagan had his eye on was Jordan's King Hussein.
But Hussein maneuvered endlessly. He needed Palestinian backing and courted Yasser Arafat, the PLO leader. Mr. Arafat was as full of Delphic prevarication as ever. Finally, in Amman, a deal seemed cut. Arafat needed to check things out one more time with Arab leaders and would be back within hours. He never returned.
Embittered, Hussein plunged into deep gloom, exacerbated by the Israeli occupation of Lebanon. His inability to come forward denied any prospect of Congress's approving arms supplies to Jordan. Hussein lashed out publicly at the US.
That was President Reagan's first disappointment.
The second came when Mr. Reagan dispatched Secretary Shultz on a mission to end Israeli and Syrian and PLO occupation of Lebanon. All the winks and signals from the moderate Arabs indicated that the US should negotiate Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon, and then the Arabs would take care of Syrian withdrawal. In an exhausting shuttle between Jerusalem and Beirut in May 1983, Shultz got his half of the loaf. But by then, Israel had dragged out events too long. The Syrians had been rearmed and had their rocketry upgraded by the Soviets. In the face of this newfound Syrian confidence, the Arabs could not produce Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon.
The agreement Shultz had crafted foundered.
Finally, there was the tragedy of the US marines in Lebanon. With the French, the Italians, and ultimately a small British unit, the US participated in a Beirut peacekeeping force. It did anything but keep the peace. Arab extremists wrought terrible havoc. American losses were heavy. With the President on the West Coast and Shultz in Grenada on his way to Latin America, the decision was taken in Washington to pull the marines out. Later, the Syrians expressed private incredulity that the Americans had withdrawn without getting any concession for it.
To these disappointments has been added a changed situation in Israel. Prime Minister Peres is struggling with an economy in deep trouble. He is extricating Israel's Army from its ill-fated adventure in Lebanon. As a coalition leader, he must garner bipartisan support for his dealings with the Arabs.
The fanciful viewpoint of the moderate Arabs is that the US can bring Israel to heel. The Reagan administration knows, however, that a Congress that throws more money at Israel than the administration itself asks for will not tolerate strong-arm tactics against Israel. The impetus for peace must come genuinely from within Israel itself.
But to talk peace, Israel needs an Arab interlocutor across the table. Whether the latest Jordanian agreement with the PLO will produce such an interlocutor remains to be seen. President Reagan called it a step in the right direction. But he remains careful. The US is willing to help. But it cannot do much until the adversaries at least agree to sit down at the same table.