An Israeli official described U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance's visit to Israel, which begins Tuesday, as "a clean table" - a chance to clear away all the old dishes of the Kissinger diplomacy and sit down afresh with a new Secretary of a new administration before attitudes harden and new policies set.
The Israelis have the impression that Vance is making his first trip abroad as Secretary of State to listen rather than actually to start the negotiating process. In this they see a chance to explain their point of view to their one indispensable patron and ally before the inevitable pressures of diplomacy actually begin.
As for Vance, he may return to the United States with the same impression that U.N. Secretary General Kurt Waldheim said he discovered in the Middle East, that there is a new spirit of moderation in the Arab countries that border Israel.
He will not find, however, that the Israelis have similarly softened their stand and he may even perceive that the Israeli line is hardening in small and subtle ways. This is because the Israelis do not accept that the Arabs have really changed their hearts and the Israelis fear that the new moderation is merely a change of tactics designed to disarm the Jewish state by other means.
The Israelis will tell Vance that they are ready to go to Geneva to reconvence the peace conference at any time "without preconditions means that the Israelis will only sit down with the original participants, that they will not negotiate with the Palestine Liberation Organization under any formula and that they will never accept the creation of a separate Palestinian state between Israel and Jordan.
The Israelis will not hold hard to the line that any return of occupied territory in the West Bank must be made to Jordan and not to a separate Palestinian entity. They say this is partly for praticial reasons, that the West Bank alone is too small to absorb enough Palestinian refugees. But the real reason is that Israel does not want to risk the possibility of a radical and irridentist state and hopes that the link with Jordan would be a modifying factor.
Israel also realizes that no independent state could accept complete demilitarization - the very least that Israel would demand for the West Bank - but it might be arranged if the West Bank were, in effect, a Jordanian province albeit with some pretentions of limited sovereignty.
As for the PLO, the Israelis say that it does not matter how many moderate noises that make, there can be no dealing with them as long as "that bloody covenant," as Foreign Minister Yigal Allon called the PLO's charter the other day, denies the right of Jews to have a sovereign state in Palestine. The Israelis are helped in this position by the tendency among PLO leaders to issue a hard-line statement of denial almost every time one of their leaders makes a moderate statement.
Yet the Israeli position on the PLO has slightly hardened on two points. Formerly, the Israelis said that the Palestinians might be represented at Geneva as part of the Jordanian delegation and that Israel would not "examine the credentials" of the Jordanians to distinguish between Palestinians and Jordanians.
Recently, Israel "clarified" this position, saying that any of the known PLO leadership could not attend Geneva even as part of the Jordanian delegation.
More recently the Israeli position on the Palestinian covenant has also begun to change. Next month the Palestinian National Council is to meet in Cairo and, although the expectation here is that the clauses concerning non-recognition of a Jewish state will not change, there is the chance that the covenant will be amended to reflect a more moderate attitude.
To counter this eventually, Israeli officials are saying that even if the covenant is changed, Israel will judge whether these changes are meaningful.
But for now, Israelis take the same attitude expressed by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin when he was once asked what he would do if the PLO turned moderate: "If my aunt had wheels she would be a bus," he said.
Privately, the Israelis do not believe that Geneva can produce much and they favor the step-by-step formula that brought the Sinai agreements with Egypt.
"It is inconceivable that such a problem can be solved in a one-blow breakthrough, a senior official said recently. Like Egypt's President Sadat, the Israelis think it will take years before the wounds of so many wars can be healed.
The difference is that the Arabs are offering an end to belligerency in exchange for a return to 1967 borders, with real peace to come perhaps in another generation. The Israelis are willing to return some territory for an end to belligerency but not as much as they would for real peace. The Israelis feel they are being asked to give everything away in advance of peace.
That is why Israelis leaders are likely to push for the beginning of some kind of normalization process in the Middle East - something that would bind the protagonists to compromise and mutual acceptance, if not friendship, rather that just an end to belligerency, which might not be permanent.
The gap that divides Israel and its neighbors is very wide - especially when it comes to the representation of the Palestinians and the amount of territory Israel might be willing to return - and it is not likely to close without a major effort on the part of the United States. That is about the only thing on which all the parties of the Middle East conflict agree.