ON the perennial problem of Middle East peace negotiations the Bush administration has been determinedly low key. Rather than produce a multipoint Bush plan for the region, or try for Camp Kennebunkport accords, the White House has tried to nudge Israel quietly into negotiations with Arab adversaries. It is a process of low-profile persuasion that promotes others - notably Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak - as peacemakers.
At the same time, Bush officials have played down the prospect of a near-term breakthrough in the seemingly endless search for Middle East reconciliation. Asked Monday about the chance for progress, Secretary of State James Baker III replied like a man weighing the prospect of winning a lottery, or striking oil in his backyard. ``It is possible,'' he said. ``I think it's too early to say it's probable.''
The Bush policy of being firmly phlegmatic was on full display during President Mubarak's visit to Washington this week. The Egyptian leader brought with him his 10-point plan for Palestinian elections in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, and United States officials made it clear they supported the plan.
But President Bush did not personally endorse the proposal. Secretary of State Baker sounded lukewarm about the chances of Israel accepting it as the basis for negotiations. And the initiative was, after all, Egyptian, not American.
Mubarak's 10 points are crucial because the question of Palestinian elections in the occupied territories is now the central issue in the Middle East peace process. Even getting something so distant as an Israeli-Palestinian agreement to discuss how they might talk about setting up elections would be a major step forward, according to US analysts.
Israel's Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir said Thursday he was ready to talk to the US and Egypt about holding Israeli-Palestinian talks on Middle East peace, Reuters reported.
One reason the Bush administration approach looks low-profile may be that the waning days of the Reagan White House saw one of the biggest changes in US Middle East policy in years - the US decision to talk directly with representatives of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
This was followed in the early months of the Bush administration by a speech given by Baker to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) that was widely interpreted as cold. One phrase from the speech conveyed this image: Israel must ``lay aside once and for all, the unrealistic vision of a greater Israel.''
But in retrospect the speech was not quite what it seemed at the time, including as it did support for Israel's West Bank and Gaza election proposal. The Bush administration was not about to try and yank Israel along.
The policy instead has been one of waiting for a ``ripening'' peace process, in the words of a foreign policy guidance paper written by high Bush officials such as Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger and published by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
This paper advocated a go-slow approach to the Middle East and said any ambitious US plan would likely be counterproductive. It emphasized the need to develop an indigenous Palestinian leadership - while keeping Israeli security needs in mind.
To those who think Israel is the main obstacle to peace the US approach is too timid. While US support for Mubarak is ``encouraging'', says Philip Mattar, executive director of the Institute for Palestine Studies, the US has ``not really tried to induce concessions'' from Israel, such as an overt commitment to trading the the occupied land for peace.
Any AIPAC opposition to occupied territory elections could cause Bush to back down from supporting Mubarak's 10 points, Mattar says. Those who think Arab hostility still threatens Israel's existence are not overly dissatisfied with the Bush Middle East attitude. They feel it gives Israel time to settle its political disputes on the next steps to reconciliation, such as the elections question.
``You had to have this period of pre-negotiation'' on Palestinian elections, says Martin Indyk, director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.