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Significant Middle East steps

MIDDLE East peace defies a yellow-pad approach. Columns of cons overwhelm the pros. Israel's attack on Palestine Liberation Organization headquarters in Tunis and the Palestinian/Achille Lauro affair are only the latest in a continuous stream of incidents said, by some, to torpedo the prospects of settling the dispute over West Bank territory occupied by Israel. It takes an act of moral courage to argue for peace in the Middle East, where initiatives overnight can slip into the sand.

The latest proposals by Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres on talks with Jordan reflect considerable courage, given the predictable negative reaction of the Likud bloc with which Mr. Peres's Labor Party shares power in the Knesset. So did President Reagan's decision to move ahead with his arms aid plan for Jordan's King Hussein, against the explicit sentiment of Congress.

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Peres offered the prospect of a small working group, including some Palestinian participation, at least to get started on talks with Jordan, which could lead to the inclusion of others, development of an agenda, and an incremental approach to an agreement. Jordan's talks with Syria about potential non-PLO participation may correspondingly pressure Palestinian ranks to move forward on talks. Peres made it easier, on the sale of American arms to Jordan, for Hussein to move on the belligerency issue, indic ating that progress on ending the state of belligerency between the Jordan River neighbors would obviate Israeli opposition to the arms sale.

On the question of an international forum, although Israel would still prefer to have direct talks, again the door was left open by Peres. Israeli leaders might object less to a Soviet role than would Washington; Tel Aviv views differently the potential harm or benefit of a Soviet presence in such talks, especially with Soviet restoration of relations with Israel involved. The Israelis very much want President Reagan to raise the issue of Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union with Mikhail Gorbachev at

the Geneva summit next month. Some engagement with the Soviets on agreements is necessary; the Soviets will hardly agree to start releasing 50,000 Jews a year, say, for the purpose of settling the West Bank.

Meanwhile, it remains clear that peace prospects continue to need a big American push. Mr. Reagan's persistence on the Jordan arms sale may be an indication of such a commitment.

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