Conventional wisdom has it that a comprehensive solution to the problems of the Mideast will be brought about by pressing Israel to the '67 frontiers, elaborating a new status for the Old City of Jerusalem and establishing Palestinian identity in return for recognition, peace and international guarantees.
I believe conventional wisdom to have no basis in Mideast reality. I can think of no conflict between Arab nations that was ever conclusively settled in one grand negotiation. Why then should it work between countries that have heretofore treated each other as mortal enemies? The missing ingredient in the conventional wisdom is that none of the parties shares the American view of peace as a terminal point after which all tensions dissipate; they all view it as but one stage in a continuing struggle.
This applies above all to Syria, which has emerged as the key player. Iraq, its principal rival, has been crushed, and Jordan, its neighbor, is too fragile to engage in negotiations without the approval of Damascus. Syria, a country with a long tradition but a brief history, considers itself the fount of Arab nationalism. As such, it has historically dismissed Israel as an illegal creation whose precise borders are philosophically irrelevant to its illegitimacy. When I first visited Damascus, the newspapers reported that I had come from ''occupied territory;'' my point of origin had been Tel Aviv, well inside the 1967 borders.
For Syrian President Hafez Assad and his colleagues in the Baath Party, the defense of the Arab nation and leadership of Arab nationalism have priority over such abstractions as the peace process. Accepting the permanence of Israel would be inconceivable for Syria before all Arab demands are met. I am convinced that Mr. Assad would surely reject peace based on a return of the Golan Heights unless the Palestinian question is resolved simultaneously. And if by some miracle that goal could be achieved, he would then insist -- as he already has -- on the enforcement of previous U.N. resolutions which call for the return of all Arab refugees to their homes, a process that would overwhelm Israel.
Of all the potential negotiators, Jordan's ruler is the most genuinely anxious for a lasting agreement. But his population is 60 percent Palestinian, and it inevitably considers all the territory west of the Jordan as its homeland. No doubt many of them are prepared to concede some sort of partition to end a 50-year odyssey. But most of them will continue to struggle for the land of their ancestors, most of which happens to be in pre-1967 Israel. The Palestinian aspirations should be understandable to the Jews who have kept their own yearning for that stark territory alive for 2,000 years. The difficulty is that Palestinian yearnings may not be compatible with Israel's survival.
Egypt is committed to a more permanent concept of peace than its Arab brethren because it has already achieved its maximum aim -- the restoration of the territories it considers its own. But with no unsatisfied claims left, it also has little incentive to run major domestic risks on behalf of an American peace process.
Israel looks on the entire exercise with foreboding. Only recently attacked by Iraqi missiles in the course of a war in which Israel did not participate, and then asked by its principal ally not to retaliate lest that trigger a general Arab assault, Israel sees no magic in retiring to borders within mortar range of its main cities, and which moreover were never recognized by the Arab states when they were Israel's official borders. Israel did make peace with Egypt along the '67 border. But its quid pro quo was not the phrase ''peace,'' but the reality of a demilitarized Sinai some 140 miles deep. Such conditions do not exist on Israel's other frontiers. Thus the slogan ''land for peace'' translates in Israel into trading the tangible for the revocable. After all, ''peace'' and ''recognition'' did not prevent the rape of Kuwait or the Iran-Iraq War or the India-Pakistan bloodlettings.
For all these reasons, the Palestinian problem cannot at this moment have a final outcome, especially as the peace process as now conceived will be viewed by Palestinians as a first step, and by Israel at best as a security problem, and at worst as a violation of Biblical rights. And even should King Hussein feel differently -- as the last two American administrations hoped -- he is constrained by his powerful Syrian neighbor whose motivation is the historic vision of Palestine as part of greater Syria.
What is possible, however, is a progressive easing of tensions through a series of partial agreements. But to do so a substantive program must be developed with the key parties.