JERUSALEM, OCT. 16 -- Secretary of State George P. Shultz began a mission to the Middle East today under the shadow of the new developments in the Persian Gulf, and with little optimism for restarting the Arab-Israeli peace process.

Shultz was notified aboard his airplane en route from Washington of the Iranian attack on a U.S.-flagged ship anchored at Kuwait. He said on arrival here that he had been in touch with Washington "back and forth" through his U.S. Air Force plane's sophisticated communications system.

Shultz was noncommittal about his views on the attack, except to say, "It's obviously a serious matter, particularly when you have two days running direct attacks on Kuwait as a nonbelligerent country."

Shortly after leaving Washington, several hours before the latest attack took place, Shultz told reporters aboard his plane that he was counting on a massive display of U.S. military power in the Persian Gulf to reduce the risks of new violent acts from Iran.

Asked if the large-scale U.S. presence and the necessary actions to defend it would not lead to a much deeper U.S. military involvement, Shultz replied, "I don't think that necessarily follows.

"The history of deterrence is that you need to have the strength to make it clear that the party whose hostile acts you're seeking to deter has a very large capacity that is willing to act arrayed against it.

"I remember in the late '60s we had all the protests around and the lesson that people learned from that was you have to have an adequate force on hand and then you don't have the violence. I think the same is true whether you are talking about deterrence on a grander scale or in this more intermediate case."

Shultz went on to say that the "strong capability" of the U.S. military force in the Persian Gulf "will tend to reduce the risks." If the U.S. force were inadequate or barely adequate, "it would be much more risky," he said.

Shultz is likely to face new questions about Persian Gulf policy Saturday morning when he is scheduled to meet King Fahd on a brief visit to Saudi Arabia, the most powerful and one of the most concerned of the Arab states of the gulf.

Diplomatic sources said Saudi Arabia is looking for assurance from Shultz that the United States is in the gulf in force for as long as a U.S. military presence is needed. Saudi leaders were said to believe that serious clashes with Iran are inevitable, and the sources said the leaders would ask Shultz to make sure that if the United States strikes back, the blows will be massive enough to weaken the Tehran regime's military capability.

Here in Israel this afternoon, Shultz met separately with the two often-contending leaders of this country's coalition government, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. In each case, Shultz discussed Soviet emigration and religious and political rights for Jews in the Soviet Union with a full battery of advisers present, and then held confidential one-on-one meetings.

In speaking to reporters aboard his plane, Shultz had minimized the possibility of a breakthrough in the stalled peace process, at one point suggesting that the most he could do would be to rearrange shopworn past proposals, much as furniture can be rearranged in an effort to make a room more appealing.

Met at the airport by Peres, who has been urging major new initiatives in the peace process, Shultz did not even mention the subject in his arrival statement.

In response to a question about an international peace conference on the Middle East, which Peres strongly favors and Shamir strongly opposes, Shultz said only that "this is an important issue" and that how to advance Mideast peace negotiations is "a hard problem."

Discussions with Shamir and Peres are to continue Saturday evening after Shultz returns here from his five-hour trip to Saudi Arabia.