ISRAELI Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's planned meetings in Washington today with President Bush and Secretary of State James Baker III offer a fresh opportunity to make progress in the stop-and-go Israeli-Palestinian peace process. In contrast to the daily changes in Eastern Europe, progress in reaching peace in the Middle East tends to inch forward by month and year.
Much now depends on Israel's willingness to find a way around problems it has with its own peace plan and on the ability of the United States to maintain its strength as broker in the process, analysts say.
``The important thing is that we hang in there and not be overwhelmed, either by the difficulty of it ... or by pressures to ease up on the Israelis,'' says Roy Atherton, former US assistant secretary of state for Near East and South Asian affairs.
Israel's inner cabinet, which last month rejected an Egyptian offer to host Israeli-Palestinian talks in Cairo, voted this month to accept Mr. Baker's proposal for talks among Israel, Egypt, and the US on the controversial issue of who will serve on the Palestinian delegation.
Israeli officials, however, want to add bilateral written assurances from the US that the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) will not be involved in the Palestinian delegation and that talks will focus only on elections.
The State Department, which is still waiting for a formal response from Egypt to the Baker plan, says it is ``looking at'' Israel's request. In the view of some US experts, the US would enter dangerous waters if it gave such assurances. They note that as part of the 1975 Sinai disengagement agreement the US made a similar promise to Israel that in effect said the US would not deal with the PLO.
``That tied our hands as a peacemaker,'' says Mr. Atherton. ``I hope we do not go into another bilateral agreement that will make it more difficult to play the role of honest broker.''
The US does not have to respond in a positive way ``to every one of these demands,'' says Judith Kipper, a Middle East scholar with the Brookings Institution. ``I think there have been enough documents and assurances. The archives are full. Now we have to get to the negotiating table and start a process.''
The Likud Party's concern, as Prime Minister Shamir has said, is the PLO's aim of establishing a separate state. In his view, any agreement to talk to the PLO suggests a readiness to negotiate on that issue.
The difficult problem is getting a Palestinian delegation that the PLO blesses, and that the Israelis can sit down with, Atherton says.
``If there's a desire on both sides ... solutions can be found,'' he says. ``But it will take a lot of imagination and a more flexibility than either the Israelis or the Palestinians have shown so far.''
Still, many argue that this issue is more semantic than real.
``Who are you going to negotiate with if not your opponent?'' asks Paul Jabber, former director of the Middle East program at the Council on Foreign Relations. ``No one is asking Israel to sit down with [PLO leader] Yasser Arafat.... Baker, the Egyptians, the PLO, and everybody else, have been bending over backwards to try to find some formula that would enable the Israelis to say `yes.'''
The US government has been far too gentle with Mr. Shamir and the political right in Israel, Mr. Jabber contends. Additional US pressure could lead to a political crisis in Israel, but it might also force Israelis to face up to the need for a change, he says. ``I don't think we're going to make any significant progress unless the Israelis bite some very hard bullets - just as the PLO [which decided to talk with the Israelis] and others have who have undergone some agonizing reappraisals.''
Many in Israel, particularly on the political right, may prefer to let the peace process languish rather than raise the eventual question of giving up land.
But Israel's hard-pressed economy, the continuing intifadah (uprising), and Israel's increasing diplomatic isolation serve as prods to press on. So does the fact that it is Shamir's own plan under discussion - and Israel will likely be blamed if the plan fails to move.
The US also faces difficult choices. ``The question is whether the administration is ready to get in with its feet and stay in,'' says Robert Hunter, a Middle East specialist with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. ``History suggests that you really have to commit a good deal of time and attention and prestige to something like this to move it forward.''
The US should be patient, stick with the process, and make sure the PLO stays flexible and involved, Atherton says.
The US needs to deal with the PLO as ``a full partner'' and to convey that impression publicly. It should, he says, resist the temptation to automatically issue a communiqu'e after today's meetings playing down Israeli-US differences.
``Unless there is really some genuine flexibility on the Israeli side, we ought to say we haven't found a way of bridging our differences,'' Atherton says. ``Friends can disagree.''