What is reassuring about the latest peace maneuvers in the Middle East is that Israelis and Jordanians and Palestinians are talking soberly, without damaging hyperbole, with some evident awareness of each other's political requirements; talking not like enemies who fear and hate each other but like cousins who know they are in the presence of what is essentially a family quarrel, terrible but known.
Whether there really is an opening for peace, or for a step or two in that direction, is perhaps more a metaphysical question than a political one. It is not by accident or misunderstanding, after all, that the Israeli-Palestinian feud is still unresolved. There is a real argument: two peoples claiming one land. In many disputes, limiting the damage, rather than bringing about a solution, can mark the outer bounds of statesmanship as well as convenience.
Still, for all of the dismal history in the Middle East, hope continues to vie with fatigue or, if you will, with "realism" in the minds of serious people on all sides. Those who prefer the certainties of the status quo to the rigors of change tend to warn of the difficulties and dangers of a peace process. I am with those who feel that the status quo is unacceptable. It's not that calamities loom: they may or may not. It simply cannot be that the present dangerous, costly, wasteful, debilitating situation is the best we can do.
It has taken only a few weeks to reach a familiar place of gridlock. Israel, supported by the United States, demanded that the PLO publicly accept Israel. Jordan's King Hussein, in Washington, said Yasser Arafat of the PLO would. But Arafat promptly indicated, to The Wall Street Journal, a price that Israel and the United States insist they will not pay: prior American agreement to support Palestinian self- determination in the context of the Jordanian-Palestinian confederation that he and Hussein endorsed on Feb. 11. "Self-determination" sets off frightful alarms in Israel; most Israelis take it to mean a Palestinian state, and they are not ready for it. Nor is President Reagan.
Perhaps all that the Palestinians are capable of politically is a modest initial dialogue with the United States, one they would have to conduct through the "Palestinians' representatives who are not PLO" acceptable to Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres. To go further would require too much: acceptance of Israel. The PLO could yet decide that an American dialogue with those "representatives" would traumatize the movement and lead nowhere, so why bother? Those who argue that the PLO would mellow if only the United States set aside its self-denying ban of 1975 and talked with the organization have not made a very strong case. The real need is for Israel and the PLO to find each other.
Yet it is a matter of value that Hussein opens the prospect of the direct talks that Israel craves and that Arafat leaves unrebutted the insistence by Hussein that in the right circumstances the PLO is prepared to say the magic words of accepting Israel. The Israelis would be foolish to foreclose the possibility of making these possibilities, later and by degrees, become real.
The Israeli response to the latest flurry of diplomacy is a lowest-common-denominator statement emphasizing diplomatic process over the substance of a final desired result. Its avoidance of the question of territory is what keeps it within the political reach of both parts of the coalition, compromise-minded Labor and annexation-minded Likud. In his nine months in office, Peres gave Hussein some signals: no new Israeli settlements in the West Bank, modest improvements in the "quality of life" there. But Hussein has not come close enough actually to delivering direct talks to give Peres incentive to go to the Israeli electorate for a new mandate.
Yet the tone of the Israeli response is right. Some comfort is given to Hussein's requirement for an international umbrella. The definition of those Palestinians who would be acceptable both in preliminary procedural talks and in later substantive talks provides a little space. Peres recently transmitted quiet personal greetings to Hussein, who reciprocated.
The emphasis, at this stage, on process over outcome makes sense. If the two sides had to agree on the outcome now, they couldn't, and they would quit before they started. It's better to set out carefully but purposefully down the road and see what new combinations of mood and nuance can bring. Give it a chance.