PARIS, FEB. 4 -- Even before the expected departure Friday of the State Department's Middle East specialist, Assistant Secretary of State Richard W. Murphy, European and Arab officials today privately expressed skepticism about his new mission's chances of reviving the stalled Arab-Israeli peace process.
They cited the long history of dashed hopes for settling the Arab-Israeli dispute, the timing of the mission in the final months of the Reagan administration and the absence of any clear understanding of what Murphy will be proposing to end Palestinian protests in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
British and French officials, usually consulted on such important American initiatives, privately said the United States had not kept them informed this time.
They and Arab officials suggested that the Reagan administration may be motivated principally by a desire to give an impression of movement sufficient to prevent the Soviet Union from making further inroads in the Middle East, from which it was effectively excluded more than a decade ago.
With the disturbances in the Israeli-occupied territories showing no clear sign of subsiding, some Arab officials and analysts say they are convinced that the situation must get worse before it can get better.
The deadlocked coalition government in Israel, they say, has yet to feel enough pressure from the disturbances to allow Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, who favors an international peace conference, to overcome Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's rejection of such a conference before the country's general elections in November.
Senior Jordanian officials accompanying King Hussein on a visit here said that special American envoy Philip C. Habib, who was in Amman last Saturday, had "hinted at" U.S. willingness to accept an international peace conference under U.N. aegis with the participation of the Soviet Union and other permanent Security Council members.
Such a conference is the bedrock of Jordanian diplomacy and has the backing of key Arab powers, which Hussein feels he must have before trying on any negotiations with Israel. But these Jordanians cautioned that it was "simply too early" to tell how serious Washington is about holding such a conference, which in the past has been opposed by both the United States and Shamir.
The Jordanian officials said Murphy's stop in Damascus could be crucial because Syrian President Hafez Assad would have to approve any deal involving King Hussein in peace negotiations.
"The king is a careful and prudent leader who is on good terms with almost everyone in the Arab world and who does not want to be the first one to say no to the Americans," a Syrian source said, suggesting that Hussein would prefer not to be seen rejecting the American ideas outright no matter what his reservations.
The same sources quoted Assad's right-hand man, Vice President Abdul Halim Khaddam, as saying, "There are so many projects and initiatives that it is not advisable to take a stand. Let's wait and see."
Assad is known to want improved relations with Washington despite his deeply ingrained suspicions of the Reagan administration and Secretary of State George P. Shultz. Those suspicions date from Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon and later, unsuccessful U.S. efforts to enlist Assad's agreement for what Damascus denounced as a separate peace between Israel and Lebanon.
But Syrian sources said sending Habib back to the region was likely to revive Assad's suspicions of the envoy who, in the early 1980s, was a roving regional ambassador. Convinced that Habib misled him into thinking Israel would honor a cease-fire during the fighting in Lebanon in June 1982, Assad in effect declared Habib persona non grata.
Moreover, Syrian sources said suggestions in Washington that Murphy, a former ambassador to Damascus, would shuttle between Israel and Syria were likely to recall Assad's disillusionment with similar shuttle diplomacy by Henry Kissinger after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. Assad feels that those negotiations set in motion the separate peace between Israel and Egypt that has left Syria as the only major Arab military power confronting the Jewish state.
For these reasons, the sources said, Assad would prefer a special U.S. mission to Damascus alone.