Christopher in Cairo

NEW violence between Arabs and Israelis underscores the task Secretary of State Warren Christopher faces as he meets with Egyptian leaders in Cairo today on his first official trip abroad.

But diplomatically, the choice of the Middle East as a first venture is a safe one. The United States has a commitment to the region because of its sponsorship of peace talks. The crisis and the players are well-known and Secretary Christopher brings the seasoned team of former Secretary James Baker. Christopher's recent handling of the deportee crisis at the UN - getting a resolution (albeit unenforceable) for the return of all 400 Palestinians - allows him to travel without the pall of a stalemate hang ing over the trip. Deportees needn't be the first or main topic in Egypt, Jordan, or Syria.

Christopher has rightly lowered public expectations for this trip. He wants to listen and evaluate. What he will hear, however, either between the lines or directly, is that all sides want the US to move strongly to restart the peace process. Even mainstream PLO leaders privately desire this. The US has not been engaged in foreign policy for months. Israel's deportations inflamed the Arab world, and pressures are building. What Christopher will hear is an anxious hope for leadership and a strategy to mov e forward.

Will Christopher support the Arab desire for "two track" peace talks, in which Israel would negotiate simultaneously on the Syrian-Golan question and the Palestinian issue? Or will he lean toward Israeli Prime Minister Rabin's desire to treat them separately, starting with Syria?

He doesn't have to decide on this trip. If the new secretary can get Palestinian leaders to agree to even one step forward, it would be a plus. Privately, Christopher must speak decisively with Mr. Rabin. But given the climate, if no progress is made, it will appear to be the two sides that botched it.

After the Middle East, Christopher will stop in Geneva to talk with Russian Foreign Minister Kozyrev, then in Brussels to meet with NATO leaders on Bosnia.

All parts of the trip will be demanding. Truly, it is a new world order when the Middle East is the first crisis a new administration wants to deal with.

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