Incoming Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance plans a trip to the Middle East next month as the first step in Carter administration efforts to bring about new Arab-Israeli peace negotiations, informed sources said yesterday.
The Vance trip to Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel is likely to lead to invitations for the leaders of those countries to visit Washington this spring, the sources said. Thus the stage will be set for initiatives lookint toward majro peace negotiations this summer.
President-elect Jimmy Carter said in an interview last month that he hoped to meet Israeli and Arab leaders before deciding on U.S. efforts to arrange Middle East peace talks. The fact that Vance expects to be going first - and so quickly after taking office - indicates that a high priority is being given to the explosive region.
Vance reportedly discussed his proposed trip last Friday with Israeli Ambassador Simcha Dinitz. Sources said be broadly hinted at his journey - but gave no definite date or decision - in a meeting with five Arab ambassadors at the State Department Monday.
Ambassador Najati Kabbani of Lebanon, dean and spokesman of the Arab diplomats here, said he and the envoys of Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait told Vance of the "urgent need to regain the momentum" and their conviction that "1977 will be the year to obtain an overall settlement." Kabbani said he is encouraged by the high priority that the United States is giving to the matter.
A scheduled two-week trip to the Middle East in the first half of February by U.N. Secretary General Kurt Waldheim is believed to be among the factors spurring a quick trip by Vance.
Some U.S. officials are apprehensive that Waldheim could move into a vacuum if the United States is inactive and inadvertently complicate the American role.
Another factor adding to the urgency is the Saudi Arabian desire for U.S. peace efforts as a gesture of support for its tough stand for a smaller than expected oil price increase at the recent meeting of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.
The national elections is Israel are likely to affect both the timing and nature of the U.S. efforts. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin faces a battle for renomination at the convention of the ruling Labor Party Feb. 22, and the chosen nominee then faces a major contest in the national elections May 17. Peace prospects and policies are expected to be an important political debating point.
Souces said Vance has indicated that the Israeli leader will be the first of the Middle East chiefs invited to Washington this spring. However, Rabin's fate in party convention could affect that plan.
The Arab leaders expected to be invited to meet with Carter are Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, Syrian President Hafez Assad, Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Fah'd and King Hussein of Jordan. Sadat is now under fire at home for a new austerity program, and it is uncertain whether Assad would place his prestige on the line in a trip to see Carter without a clear idea of the outcome. Hussein is expected here this spring for what is now an annual visit.
The Vance journey and, to an even greater degree, meetings between Carter and Middle East leaders are certain to raise the level of expectations in the region. While U.S. politigal leaders and diplomats take encouragement from growing moderation in the Arab world as expressed in a current "peace offensive" of public and private statements, some of them are also wary of a dangerous backlash if Arab hopes for a settlement are frustrated.
The Arab diplomats who called on Vance Monday asked him to give priority to "the central issues" of the Arab-Israeli dispute and not to be diverted to "side issues." Lebanese Ambassador Kabbani said the central issues are "Israeli withdrawal from occupied territory" and "recognition of the national rights of the Palestinian people."