SECRETARY of State James Baker III has been drawing high marks, at least in public, in recent days from both Arabs and Israelis for trying to salvage the faltering Middle East peace process. The question now is whether or not the United States will take a position of its own and add some muscle to its efforts to nudge both sides to a compromise. Such leadership could make a significant difference, analysts say.
On Oct. 6 a sharply divided Israeli inner Cabinet rejected Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's 10-point plan. The plan calls for an Israeli-Palestinian dialogue in Cairo to negotiate the details of a Palestinian election in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. The Mubarak proposal was offered as a bridge to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's proposal of last May that elections be held in the territories to choose delegates who will discuss with Israel the subject of interim self-rule.
In a round of phone calls following the Israeli vote, Secretary Baker proposed, as a preliminary move, that the foreign ministers of Egypt and Israel consider a meeting in Washington to talk about the composition of the Palestinian delegation. ``This would add more steps, but they're not necessarily going to hurt the peace process in the end,'' says a State Department official.
Before the visits to Washington, however, Secretary Baker wants Egypt and Israel to agree to some basic ``points.'' He has been reluctant to put them in writing and has been holding the details ``like cards close to his chest,'' says one US official. Yet they are believed to include agreement that the Shamir proposal would be the object of the talks, that the Egyptians would not be expected to represent the Palestinians, and other such issues.
Both sides are weighing the offer.
In general Israel wants the agenda for any meeting to be limited to talk about election details and wants no direct or indirect contact with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Egypt favors a broader agenda and at least token delegate representation for Palestinians living outside the occupied territories.
The positions are far enough apart to have led the Likud half of Israel's coalition government to sink the Mubarak proposal. Yet a bitter battle with the Labor Party, which proposed the measure and forced it to a vote, and the packaging of the issue were key.
Some Middle East analysts insist the two sides have come a long way since elections were first proposed and are now not really that far apart. They say a more aggressive stance by the US could help.
``There is common ground if the US helps to find it and create it,'' says I. William Zartman, a specialist on Middle East issues with the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. ``We're at a point where there's enough closeness between the sides for somebody to step in and say, `OK, here are your problems. Let's bridge some and fudge some others.'''
William Quandt, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution, agrees that the two sides are not that far apart. Earlier this month the Palestinians released a list of 12 negotiators said to be put forward by Egypt. One was a PLO executive committee member expelled from the West Bank in 1982.
``I think we're down to the point where you probably only need to come up with a couple more names, sort it out, and make sure everybody's in agreement that this is the list,'' says Mr. Quandt. As for the agenda of the talks, he says, ``nobody's going to control it once they get there. If you get in the same room and talk, you've crossed the biggest procedural threshold.''
In Mr. Quandt's view, the US has no time to waste:
``I think we ought to be trying to clinch the deal, and soon. I think there's a real danger of letting this drift on for too long, trying to extract the last remaining concessions from the Palestinians to the point where they simply aren't able to remain in the game. ... At some point I think [President] Bush has to pick up the phone - or maybe talk to Shamir when he comes to the US next month - and simply say to Israel, `this is the best we can get. We simply cannot understand a `no' at this point. ... A lot comes back to [Israeli] domestic politics. The American role can help tip the balance for Shamir in terms of his own calculation of what's at stake and help him with his own party. ... My guess is he doesn't want to put himself in the position of being the one who ultimately sabotages his own [elections] initiative.''
Former US Ambassador to Egypt Hermann Eilts commends the Bush administration for putting what he sees as a higher priority on the Middle East peace process than its predecessor. He commends the secretary's bid to Israel in February to lay aside the ``unrealistic'' vision of a ``greater Israel'' as ``very, very courageous.'' But he disapproves of the administration's go-slow policy on Mideast problems. ``I think that approach is kind of dangerous,'' he says.
Indeed, Ambassador Eilts, now director of the Boston University Center for International Relations, says he would like to see the US play a much stronger leadership role. He insists that the US has played a major role in every step of progress made so far toward Arab-Israeli peace, including Camp David and the Sinai and Golan Heights agreements:
``We were the ones who put forth the written ideas which the parties could gnaw on,'' he says. ``Our documents became the center of discussion. We weren't trying to impose our ideas but to say, `here's what we think is fair.' What came out in the end was sometimes very different from what we put into it. ... Yet it was an act of leadership of the Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations.''
In an article on the United States role in Mideast peace efforts in the Oct. 13 issue of the Monitor, the proposal rejected by the Israeli inner Cabinet Oct. 6 concerned only Egypt's specific offer to host Israeli-Palestinian talks in Cairo. It was not a vote on Egypt's overall 10-point agenda for discussions.