The Reagan administration seems bent on launching itself once again into the so-called Middle East "peace procter the collapse of its previous effort and only a few weeks after the hostage crisis in Beirut. Those events should supply a warning to look -- and think -- before taking the leap.

The premises of the imminent peace offensive appear to be as follows: The main obstacle to peace in the Middle East has been the inability to engage the Palestinians as represented by the Palestine Liberation Organization -- the PLO -- in the peace process, due to the refusal of the PLO andsrael to deal with each other. Hence the search for some formula that will lure the PLO into recognizing Israel by the prospect of talks with the United States, while easing Israel's fear of an imposed peace by the prospect of direct negotiations between Israel and the Arabs.

In the most recent expression of this theory King Hussein of Jordan has asserted, without contradiction from the PLO, that Yasser Arafat, its leader, is prepared to accept the relevant U.N. resolutions, especially Security Council resolutions 242 and 338. Since these resolutions presume the legitimacy of the state of Israel, Arafat is thus alleged to have met the preconditions of the 1975 U.S. understanding with Israel not to negotiate with the PLO until it recognized Israel. As another means to get around Israel's refusal to deal with the PLO, the king has proposed -- and Israel and the United States seem to have accepted -- the creation of a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation whose Palestinian component would be composed of individuals not technically members of the PLO but necessarily acceptable to it. This delegation would have at least one preliminary meeting with high U.S. officials, in all likelihood with Assistant Secretary of State Richard W. Murphy. All this is supposed to culminate in direct talks between the Jordanian-Palestinian delegation and Israel on the future of the West Bank. The end of the proc Palestinian political unit on the West Bank loosely confederated with Jordan.

However, the key test of this minuet is not so much how to start negotiations as to define their objective. So far the chief actors have obscured their conflicting purposes by a fog of imprecisions. King Hussein, the most clearsighted of the principals, rightly perceives that he needs Palestinian support for the concessions without which Israel will not give up even part of the West Bank. But, as the target of several assassination attempts by the PLO, he knows that beyond the issue of the role of the PLO in negotiations looms the issue of the role of the PLO on the West Bank. He must aim for effective control of those portions of the West Bank he recovers; in other words, he must at some point seek to subdue the PLO.

As for the PLO, its objective is exactly the opposite. Once it is introduced into the negotiations, however convoluted the procedure, its goal must be ultimate sovereignty over at least the West Bank. Until now, the PLO has been reluctant to accept even this limited objective, because in its view the state of Israel, whatever its eastern borders, is located on the territory that at one time was home for most of the PLO's members or at least of their ancestors.

PLO leaders may be willing to muffle their ultimate objective of full sovereignty until the goal of American recognition has been harvested. But if they seriously pursue reconciliation with Israel, and a secondary role within Jordan, they may find themselves without followers.

The divided Israeli government, obsessed with politics, beset with domestic unrest and an unprecedented economic mess, would like the issue of negotiations to go away. Since that will not happen, it hides behind procedure so as to defer substance until after a new election or a change of government.

The American administration is divided between a top leadership eager to limit America's role to the promotion of direct negotiations and a bureaucracy determined to nudge these negotiations in the direction of its standard solution: the 1967 borders with minor modifications; a Palestinian entity that, however it starts, must wind up with sovereign attributes for the PLO; and some sort of neutral status for the old city of Jerusalem.

Given this plethora of views, deadlock is virtually guaranteed by the very expedient that is supposed to unlock the peace process: the Jordanian-Palestinian delegation composed of Palestinians acceptable to the PLO but not members of it. Whom and what precsely would such a group represent? Why should it meet first and separately with a senior American official? How could its members be acceptable to both Israel and the PLO? The projected peace procduce a threefold split among the Palestinians: those who take their lead from Syria and refuse to recognize Israel; those who recognize Israel primarily to be accepted by the United States but who will resume the struggle at the earliest opportunity; and a minority sincerely interested in accommodation -- whatever sincerity means on the shifting sands of Middle East allegiances.

Direct negotiations between the parties cannot possibly reconcile these differences, for the known positions are at bottom irreconcilable. Jordan requires the 1967 frontiers with "minor" modifications and a sovereign position in Jerusalem. I know of no Israeli government that would consider such terms or PLO rule over whatever is to be given up on the West Bank even -- perhaps especially -- after an election.

If there are to be significant changes in these positions, they must be extracted by a major engagement -- and, let us be frank, pressure -- by the United States on one or probably both sides. It has ever been thus -- even in the negotiations between Egypt and Israel. And

Egypt, as the largest and geographically most remote Arab

country dealing with a territory to

which Israel had little historical and

emotional attachment, was in a

much stronger position to be flexible than is little Jordan adjoining

better armed and hostile neighbors

and contesting a land to which Israelis attach Biblical significance.

The absolute maximum attainable -- even with all-out U.S. engagement -- would be akin to the

plan put forward by the late Israeli

foreign minister, Yigal Allon. It

would retain key strategic West

Bank areas for Israel, return populated areas to Arab control and perhaps create a kind of Vatican status for some Arab and Christian holy places in an undivided Jerusalem. (The last point was not part of the Allon plan.)

The projected peace process can succeed only if the United States is prepared to use all its influence to press both sides. If the United States is not fully committed to such a role, the negotiations will fail; Hussein, like Lebanese President Amin Gemayel, may be undermined by the peace process; American influence in the Middle East will be further weakened, and the whole area will have been thrown into turmoil. Those in the U.S. government -- and it is my impression that they are the top officials -- who seek to limit its role to merely bringing the parties together should ask themselves whether starting an uncertain and difficult "process" is worth such risks.

Negotiations, moreover, never occur in a political vacuum, especially in the Middle East. Historically, prog Middle East negotiations has emerged from three factors: an Israel powerful enough to stand against any combination of Arab states; some evidence that radical Arab rhetoric and Soviet support are impotent; and a purposeful American policy that enables moderate Arab states to justify cooperation with America as indispensable to achieving at least some Arab objectives.

None of these conditions exists today. Israel is more divided than at any period in its history. Its unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon, American administration is divided between a top leadership eager to limit America's role to the promotion of direct negotiations and a bureaucracy determined to nudge these negotiations in the direction of its standard solution: the 1967 borders with minor modifications; a Palestinian entity that, however it starts, must wind up with sovereign attributes for the PLO; and some sort of neutral status for the old city of Jerusalem.

Given this plethora of views, deadlock is virtually guaranteed by the very expedient that is supposed to unlock the peace process: the Jordanian-Palestinian delegation composed of Palestinians acceptable to the PLO but not members of it. Whom and what precsely would such a group represent? Why should it meet first and separately with a senior American official? How could its members be acceptable to both Israel and the PLO? The projected peace procduce a threefold split among the Palestinians: those who take their lead from Syria and refuse to recognize Israel; those who recognize Israel primarily to be accepted by the United States but who will resume the struggle at the earliest opportunity; and a minority sincerely interested in accommodation -- whatever sincerity means on the shifting sands of Middle East allegiances.

Direct negotiations between the parties cannot possibly reconcile these differences, for the known positions are at bottom irreconcilable. Jordan requires the 1967 frontiers with "minor" modifications and a sovereign position in Jerusalem. I know of no Israeli government that would consider such terms or PLO rule over whatever is to be given up on the West Bank even -- perhaps especially -- after an election.

If there are to be significant changes in these positions, they must be extracted by a major engagement -- and, let us be frank, pressure -- by the United States on one or probably both sides. It has ever been thus -- even in the negotiations between Egypt and Israel. And

Egypt, as the largest and geographically most remote Arab

country dealing with a territory to

which Israel had little historical and

emotional attachment, was in a

much stronger position to be flexible than is little Jordan adjoining

better armed and hostile neighbors

and contesting a land to which Israelis attach Biblical significance.

The absolute maximum attainable -- even with all-out U.S. engagement -- would be akin to the

plan put forward by the late Israeli

foreign minister, Yigal Allon. It

would retain key strategic West

Bank areas for Israel, return populated areas to Arab control and perhaps create a kind of Vatican status for some Arab and Christian holy places in an undivided Jerusalem. (The last point was not part of the Allon plan.)

The projected peace process can succeed only if the United States is prepared to use all its influence to press both sides. If the United States is not fully committed to such a role, the negotiations will fail; Hussein, like Lebanese President Amin Gemayel, may be undermined by the peace process; American influence in the Middle East will be further weakened, and the whole area will have been thrown into turmoil. Those in the U.S. government -- and it is my impression that they are the top officials -- who seek to limit its role to merely bringing the parties together should ask themselves whether starting an uncertain and difficult "process" is worth such risks.

Negotiations, moreover, never occur in a political vacuum, especially in the Middle East. Historically, prog Middle East negotiations has emerged from three factors: an Israel powerful enough to stand against any combination of Arab states; some evidence that radical Arab rhetoric and Soviet support are impotent; and a purposeful American policy that enables moderate Arab states to justify cooperation with America as indispensable to achieving at least some Arab objectives.

None of these conditions exists today. Israel is more divided than at any period in its history. Its unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon, its release of 1,000 convicted terrorists in exchange for only three prisoners of war, and its panicky ambivalence during the Beirut hostage crisis must have strengthened the hand of those radical Arabs who argue that in the end Israel will yield to pain if persistently administered.

As for America, one need only compare the original Reagan plan of 1982 with the final results in Lebanon and the West Bank to see the decline of its influence. Throughout 1983 the United States strove to expel Syria from Lebanon and to unify that country under Christian dominance. Less than two years later the United States required the assistance of Syria to extract 40 hijacked American hostages held by one of the many Moslem factions in a known location in Beirut. The decision-makers in the area judge America by its actions, not its assertions; they note the failure to retaliate for the murder of 240 Marines and the hijacking of 40 innocent hostages. It would be self-delusion to deny the growing perception that America may lack the means or the will to achieve its designs.

The confluence of these factors has defined Syria's growing role in the Mideast. The United States should have learned that excluding the tough, ruthless Syrians guarantees a major confrontation, which will be conducted by Damascus with characteristic guile and persistence. Before launching a new set of negotiations, an exploration of Syrian views would seem essential. And, if these views are rejected, the United States must be willing to devote the energy and resources to prevail in the resulting showdown. If the United States is not to demoralize its allies and undermine irretrievably the position of its Arab friends, it must clearly define its objectives before it commits itself.

Even then, the price of success will be tension with Israel, confrontation with Syria and constant uneasiness in Jordan. If the United States is not willing to pay that price, it would be reckless to launch a process on the basis of platitudes about "creating momentum" and "beginning exploration" put forward by a bureaucracy ingenious in devising formulas but rarely willing to face their consequences.