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Worst of times is best of times for US to push Mideast talks

CONVENTIONAL wisdom - often not very wise - argues impatiently that this is no time to negotiate Mideast problems. That's probably wrong. The pessimistic formula is pat:

Can't get anywhere with American and Israeli - and even Lebanese - elections coming up this year.

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As long as Yitzhak Shamir is prime minister of Israel, no serious bargaining will take place. Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, who wants negotiations, will be too tied up in explaining his role in Washington's and Israel's newest scandal. That's the alleged 1985 influence-peddling attempt to win approval of a pipeline that would have sent Iraqi crude oil out to the Jordanian port of Aqaba.

Ronald Reagan and George Shultz are too engrossed in dealing with Moscow to manage a Mideast peace conference at the same time.

Nothing will happen to break the mindless attack-counterattack of the Iran-Iraq war.

Moscow, pulling Syria's strings (or Syria, pulling Moscow's strings), can throw a monkey wrench into any concerted effort to reach an Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian settlement. The Soviet Union and China will drag their feet on big-power efforts to squeeze Iran into serious truce negotiations in the Gulf.

That's a formidable list of reasons not to be bold and push for bargaining on both the Israeli-Palestinian problem and the Iran-Iraq war.

There's one good reason to take the opposite view. Precisely because Ronald Reagan is in his last year and doesn't have to run for reelection, he can - and should - push for a settlement. It's another chance to reach for the history books. World, American, and Israeli reaction to Israel's trouble with Palestinian youths in Gaza and the West Bank creates an opportunity.

In the past two or three years much has been made of Ronald (and Nancy) Reagan's urgent desire to bargain with Moscow on arms control ``for a place in history.'' Some of the same logic should hold true for Mr. Reagan, and Secretary of State Shultz, on the Mideast. The administration's record in that region has been timid at the wrong times, bold at the wrong times, with a few welcome exceptions. This is a moment when Reagan and Shultz could turn that record around.

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In 1982 Reagan announced a well-conceived plan for a general Arab-Israeli settlement. His administration then proceeded to ignore its own baby almost as soon as it was born. Secretary of State Alexander Haig unguardedly fell in with General Ariel Sharon's militarily brilliant but strategically disastrous armored push deep into Lebanon.

Shultz, General Haig's successor, fell into the trap of believing he could negotiate away this mistake. American troops were sent in to hold positions the Israeli Army had found untenable. The tragic results were predictable. Reagan, Shultz, and Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger were at least shrewd enough to cut their losses and exit from Beirut quickly thereafter. Meanwhile, the Israeli aim of keeping the Iran-Iraq war going (keep your enemies fighting each other) was grafted onto the American policy of remaining neutral in that war and seeking the right time for negotiation. The war-stoking policy appeared sensible for Israel. But it was not logical for Washington, with its more important alliances in Europe and Japan and its need to protect the more conservative Arab oil states. Both the backdoor missiles-for-Iran deal and the abortive pipeline-to-Aqaba deal were bad policy badly arrived at. Even a high Iraqi official said that the Aqaba pipeline was not really needed.

Understanding this past history is useful. Getting mired in it to the point of ignoring present opportunity is wasteful. Realistically, one has to be pessimistic that Secretary Shultz's Mideast experts can persuade the White House to open a second track of negotiation beside the Soviet-American track. But the logic is there. Not only is the retiring President free to move; his dealing with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev makes that leader less likely to play a spoiler role in the Middle East. Even Syria's Machiavellian bargainer, Hafez Assad, has more reason than usual to cooperate in any international conference that helps put a lid on turmoil in Lebanon.

Egypt's President Mubarak, during his White House visit last week, apparently failed to move Reagan into a more active role. Perhaps Shultz, who knows his name will also appear in the indexes of histories yet to be written, will give the effort one more try. It often pays to challenge conventional wisdom.

Earl W. Foell is editor in chief of The Christian Science Monitor.

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