BATTERED BUT inured to battering, the effort to achieve a Middle East peace goes on.
Israel is trying to use the Achille Lauro affair to draw Jordan out of the joint initiative it made with the PLO last winter and to induce King Hussein to approach the table alone or -- if Palestinians must be present -- with Palestinians seen somehow to be unconnected to the PLO.
It's plain enough what's in the Jordanian option for Israel. It keeps the truce between the uneasy partners of the governing coalition in Jerusalem, and it prevents distance from opening up between Israel and the United States. But what does it actually have to do with pursuing peace?
The Israeli answer is that, in the current circumstances at home and in the area, there's no use trying for a comprehensive settlement. Instead, try for an autonomy formula devolving certain powers on the locals and leave the tougher questions, including territory, to another day. Israelis are at pains to have Americans appreciate how hard it is for them to yield even modest control, let alone a slice of territory adjacent to the country's narrow, built-up waist, in return for Jordanian and Palestinian pledges of neighborly behavior.
Retention of full control and territory on the West Bank, however, presents Israel with costs that many Israelis regard with great alarm. Tactically the essential question is whether King Hussein can carry through (and survive) any arrangement made without some kind of PLO role. Many doubt that he can.
Israel's Labor prime minister, Shimon Peres, nonegive it a shot. He may have won a bit of extra political space at home by showing in the Tunis raid that he's tough on terrorism. He perhaps has, just barely, the time to maneuver -- with and against the king, and with and against his Israeli coalition partners too. In King Hussein he has a comrade of sorts whose political requirements he at least understands, even if it is not clear whether he can meet them.
Neither Mr. Peres nor the king, however, can do it alone. They need each other and, in addition, the careful, sustained assistance of the U.S. government at the top. It is a bad moment to be positive about the possibilities, but it will not get any better.