FOLLOWING an inconclusive trip to three Western capitals, Israel's Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir is nearing a long-postponed moment of truth. Mr. Shamir returned Friday from stops in Washington, Paris, and Rome, where he sought support for his government's May 14 peace plan - and its refusal to grant a role to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). The plan calls for Palestinian elections in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Instead, Shamir repeatedly heard this message: It's time for Israel to soften its position on the PLO to give United States mediation efforts a chance to work. The refrain has been echoed by dovish members of Shamir's Labor Party coalition partners, who have once again threatened to bolt the government if Shamir refuses to make the tactical concessions needed to get a US-brokered Israeli-Palestinian dialogue started.
``The phase of finding a formulation to get [peace] talks started is now over,'' says Ephraim Sneh, former head of the Israel Civil Administration which administers the territories. ``Now Israel and the Palestinians will have to decide if they want to talk.''
The current focus of diplomatic efforts is a five-point proposal drafted by US Secretary of State James Baker III to draw Israelis and Palestinians into negotiations to end the two-year Palestinian uprising against Israeli rule in the occupied territories.
Facing growing domestic and international pressures, Shamir will find it difficult to postpone for much longer the no-win choice of salvaging either the peace process or the unity of his own Likud party, Western diplomats and Israeli commentators say. Right-wing members of Likud staunchly oppose any concessions that would provide even an indirect opening for the PLO.
Shamir now has three options, these commentators say.
One is to refuse to proceed on the basis of Baker's five points, arguing that the Israeli Cabinet's recent acceptance of the Baker plan was conditional on US assurances that the PLO would have no role in the peace process.
Saying ``no'' would require confidence on Shamir's part that the US, frustrated by the slow pace of the peace process, would welcome a graceful way out of its mediator's role. An alternative view is that the US has invested so much effort in the Shamir plan that a negative answer from Shamir now would be regarded in Washington as diplomatic infanticide.
Shamir's second option is to accept an expected US invitation to a tripartite foreign ministers' meeting (Israel, Egypt, and the US) in Washington to discuss the formation of a Palestinian delegation to negotiate election details directly with Israeli representatives.
Saying ``yes'' to Baker would almost certainly alienate right-wing Likud members, especially since Baker says that the PLO should be allowed an indirect role in picking its delegation.
Right-wing ministers could force a showdown with Shamir before the Washington meeting. More likely, say political observers, they would wait until a list of Palestinian negotiators is submitted in Washington, then use the names - all of which will be PLO supporters - to bludgeon Shamir and force a vote of confidence.
Shamir's third option is, in effect, to say ``maybe,'' continuing the go-slow policy of calling for assurances and explanations in hopes that the PLO will be the first to say no to the Baker points, and thus be seen as the obstacle to peace.
But West Bank sources say that for Palestinian moderates who lead the uprising, too much is riding on the peace process for the PLO, which has not formally responded to the Baker proposal, to be maneuvered into such a rash act.
``The PLO cannot afford under any circumstances to lose this political process,'' says West Bank intellectual Mahdi Abdul-Hadi. ``We need to have a peace process or the [Palestinian] moderates will be swept off the political stage.''