Reagan administration officials said yesterday that a likely retaliation by the Palestine Liberation Organization for Tuesday's Israeli raid in Tunis could trigger a new spiral of violence and scuttle the U.S.-sponsored drive to revive Middle East peace talks.
"You get a car bomb in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem and it's over," one administration analyst said.
The first impact, several officials predicted, might be felt on Capitol Hill, where Republican leaders have warned the administration that without progress toward the start of direct Israeli-Jordanian talks in the next two months there is little likelihood Congress will approve its $1.9 billion arms request for Jordan.
While officials hesitated to assess the raid's full political impact, many agreed that PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat will come under enormous pressure from his radicals to retaliate and back away from joining Jordan in peace talks with Israel.
"The greatest impact of the raid will be felt on Arafat's willingness and ability to work creatively with King Hussein to put together a practical scenario for the peace process," said one analyst.
"The PLO will be forced to respond," he added. "I don't think there is any doubt about it -- and with as forceful and dramatic a raid as the Israeli one on Tunis."
That, in turn, seems likely to set off another Israeli retaliation, possibly on PLO sites in neighboring Jordan. Administration sources said Israel wanted to strike PLO sites in Jordan this summer and was deterred from doing so only by strong warnings from Washington.
Despite Arafat's allegations that the United States knew of the Israeli raid on Tunis in advance, administration sources have insisted that the attack came as a surprise here.
One of the few officials to predict greater cooperation from Arafat as a result of the raid was Richard W. Murphy, asssistant secretary of state for Middle East affairs. In an ABC television interview yesterday, Murphy said there was "a good prospect" that the PLO might reconsider its longstanding policy of armed struggle.
Analysts in and out of the administration tended to agree that Israel had carefully chosen the timing of its raid on PLO headquarters to deliver a strong political message to Hussein, Arafat, and the United States that it will never accept negotiating with the PLO.
"The Israeli message to King Hussein was 'You can have Arafat or us, but not both,' " remarked one administration official.
The raid came as Hussein was in Washington, amid reports that "some headway" was being made in getting him to modify his demand that new peace talks be held under the auspices of the United Nations, with Soviet and PLO participation.
"It really put [Hussein] on the spot," said William Quandt, a former National Security Council specialist on the Mideast in the Carter administration. "He doesn't forget these things and will resent its happening while he was here in Washington."
By most accounts, the king performed well in trying to convince Congress that he was sincere about holding direct talks with Israel. He also took pains in meetings with House and Senate leaders to condemn both the Israeli raid and the Palestinian killing of three Israelis in Cyprus that provoked it.
While Hussein did not flinch in his pursuit of peace, it is unclear what he will do if Arafat now backs away from him. In the past, Hussein has repeatedly acknowledged that he is politically too weak in the Arab world to go to the peace table alone.
In another development, Egypt, a key player in the peace process, cited the raid as a reason for breaking off efforts to resolve a border issue with Israel.
"The raid surely poisoned the whole atmosphere," remarked one Egyptian official here. "Some people in Cairo think this was the real aim of it."