Moderate Arab efforts to get the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Carter administration together in a political dialogue have triggered a high-level review of U.S. strategy toward the Palestinians, U.S. officials said yesterday.
That review has not produced any change in U.S. policy toward the PLO, U.S. officials insisted. But there were signs that it has produced differences within the administration over the approach it should take toward efforts to produce a change within the PLO.
Some officials appear to fear that the effort to get PLO recognition of Israel will fail, as it did in 1977, and that the negotiating deadlock over the future of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip will continue.
But others fear that the effort will succeed.
They want to keep the administration from being maneuvered into having to start a dialogue with the PLO when such a step would produce a major confrontation with Israel and perhaps cause that nation to pull out of continuing peace negotiations on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
The absence of a U.S. strategy to deal with the new initiative by PLO supporters surfaced at the United Nations Monday when U.S. delegates demanded and received a three-week delay in considering a new, moderately worded resolution on the Middle East, diplomatic sources said yesterday.
The United States said it would be forced to veto even a moderately worded resolution if it were presented now, according to these reports, but added that the situation might change if the resolution 242, which guarantees Israel's right to exist, in a new resolution that also would contain language from the Camp David peace agreements recognizing the existence of Palestinian political rights.
Behind the legalistic diplomatic formulations lies an explosive political dilemma for the Carter administration, based on the 1975 U.S. commitment to Israel not to talk directly to, nor negotiate with, the PLO as long as the PLO did not accept resolution 242.
Israel's position is that it will never agree to talk to the PLO, which Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin repeatedly has called a gang of murderous terrorists.
U.S.-Israel relations are currently strained because of a dispute over the composition of an international peacekeeping force in the Sinai desert. The two nations would be on an even more serious collision course if the PLO dialogue question were to be dealt with now.
Israeli concern over the U.S. attitude toward the new U.N. effort was apparent in high-level diplomatic contracts in recent days. Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance reassured Ambassador Ephraim Evron at a meeting last Friday that the United States had not changed its position on the PLO, and Assistant Secretary of State Harold Saunders repeated that assurance in a telephone call to Evron last Sunday, diplomatic sources said.
Saunders, who reportedly said that the United States would oppose any effort to change, add to or delete from resolution 242, gave the assurance in response to a specific Israeli question about a new U.N. resolution that might encourage PLO participation in the peace process.
Vance has stressed in public statements in the Middle East the need for urgent action to get Palestinians involved in the West Bank-Gaza Strip autonomy negotiations that began in late May among Egypt, Israel and the United States.
Saudi Arabia and other Arab oil producers have called on the Carter administration to begin a dialogue with the PLO as the first step toward seeking a "comprehensive" Middle East peace settlement that they will accept.
Although he reportedly had been part of the meetings over the last 10 days at which the next moves on the Palestinian question have been discussed, Ambassador Robert S. Strauss, President Carter's special Middle East negotiator, reportedly has steered clear of becoming involved in the new U.N. resolution effort, leaving the handling of that to Vance and Saunders.
"Whatever we do we must do it so that we remain firm and steadfast to our enunciated principles," Strauss said yesterday in a telephone interview. "If there is one thing that we need now it is as much certainty in our position as possible. We must remain steadfast."
The new move to get the PLO to shift its position on Israel springs in part from guerrilla leader Yasser Arafat's meeting in Vienna last month with former West German chancellor Willy Brandt and Austrian Chancellor Bruno Kreisky.
The two European leaders were said to have been encouraged by signs of moderation from Arafat. The PLO leader and one of his top aides, Abu Iyad, have been quoted by Beirut newspapers as saying that the PLO is prepared to meet with U.S. officials.
Kuwait is leading the effort at the United Nations to encompass resolution 242 in some language that saves face for Arafat but fulfills the U.S. condition for a dialogue.
At his daily news briefing, State Department spokesman Hodding Carter danced around the question of U.S. acceptance of a new Middle East resolution as the basis for future discussions with the PLO.
Carter said the United States would not accept any wording change in resolution 242 but nonetheless described the resolution as "a building block" and noted that the Camp David agreements had retained the integrity of resolution 242 while adding new language.
The State Department spokesman also dismissed a reported suggestion from Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan that a U.S. military presence be established in the Sinai to police the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. Carter said the State Department opposed this idea.