In September 1987, the American Jewish Congress became the first major American Jewish organization to call on Israel to seek "realistic alternatives to the status quo that would enhance Israel's security and would avoid the demographic and other dangers of continuing an unavoidably hostile occupation." It also expressed the view that an international peace conference should "be energetically pursued."

But the absence of U.S. support for such an international conference and opposition to the conference by Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, as well as unresolved questions about the conditions for Arab and Soviet participation, have thus far made the convening of such a conference impossible.

In the wake of the rioting that broke out in Gaza last December, we thought the position of Shamir's Likud Party might have acquired some new elasticity. It seemed inconceivable to us that at least some voices would not be raised among Shamir's supporters questioning the desirability of being forever locked in deadly embrace with more than 1 1/2 million angry Palestinians in the West Bank and in Gaza.

Officers of the American Jewish Congress set out to consult with Israel's political leaders and also to explore with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Hussein how far they are prepared to depart from their formula for an international peace conference to accommodate at least some of Shamir's objections.

What we found in Egypt was a tentative willingness to explore alternatives to their formula, by way of new conditions -- in addition to or instead of those already negotiated between Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Hussein -- that might serve to reassure Shamir, provided the general principle of an international conference is not entirely abandoned.

Our discussions in Amman with Hussein left us unclear about his reaction to this idea. Shamir, however, left little doubt as to his position. We found that he remains adamant in his opposition not only to the conditions negotiated by Peres but to the very concept of an international conference that brings the various Arab parties and the Soviet Union into negotiation with Israel. Nothing that has happened in the territories these past two months has moderated his conviction that the proposed international conference poses a deadly threat to Israel.

As an alternative, Shamir proposes either a return to the Camp David discussions, focusing on autonomy arrangements in the territories, or direct bilateral talks with Jordan. Under no circumstances, however, is he prepared to discuss what might follow the autonomy phase, except to say that both sides will then present their respective conflicting claims to sovereignty over the territories and begin negotiations anew.

For all practical purposes, that position precludes the possibility of negotiations with the Arab world. For even if Shamir were to agree to an international conference (which he will not), the notion that any Arab party -- including Jordan, the Palestinians or Egypt -- will at this point in history agree to autonomy without some discussion about what is likely to follow is simply unthinkable.

Another way of stating the problem is that it is not a difference of procedure but of substance that blocks further progress. Given Shamir's position on substance -- i.e., Israel will not at this time consider yielding sovereignty over any part of historical Eretz Yisrael {Land of Israel} -- he is right in his view that there is no point whatever in entering into negotiations in the framework of an international conference.

A conference that was presented with an Israeli refusal to talk about anything other than autonomy would deadlock before it began. However, given this limitation, it makes even less sense to engage Jordan in bilateral discussions. What Jordan could not yield in an international conference, it certainly could not yield standing alone in bilateral negotiations.

The current deadlock can be broken only by new elections that clearly turn the question of the peace process into a national referendum. I do not believe that pressure from the United States can move Shamir to change his position. Even if it did, it would achieve nothing, for an international conference that is presented with Shamir's terms would get nowhere.

However, given the rising frustrations and anger in the territories, there is a real danger that the lid may blow off the situation before the elections take place in November. A case can therefore be made for the urgency of at least the appearance of political movement toward some form of political negotiation, even if such negotiation cannot become a reality until after the elections. That is what Mubarak is trying to do, and he deserves the full support of the administration.

It is entirely possible, of course, that the Israeli Labor Party, which favors political negotiations and compromise, will not emerge victorious from the November elections. If that happens and Likud does not change its position, the likelihood is that the play will be taken from Israel and a solution will be imposed on the parties as a result of a U.S.-Soviet agreement.

Israel's resentment of those who would "save Israel from itself" is entirely understandable; Israelis are right to be suspicious of such coercive forms of political altruism. But the rest of the world is not unaffected by what happens in the Middle East, and the great powers will most certainly act to protect what they perceive to be their vital interests. To be sure, that is the least desirable scenario from Israel's point of view. However, given the paralysis of Israel's present government, that is the inevitable denouement it is inviting. The writer is executive director of the American Jewish Congress.