WINDS of peace are not sweeping through the Middle East, and the United States is getting frustrated. Months of prodding, poking, and artfully worded communiqu'es from US officials have resulted in no progress toward ending the Palestinian uprising in Israel's occupied territories. The outlook for peace talks is dimmer than ever, due to Israeli domestic political turmoil and the recent raid on an Israeli beach by a faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
Pessimism about Arab-Israeli peace prospects abounds in Washington; a number of analysts say the situation is more volatile than at any time since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. White House officials say they want to stay engaged in the search for a solution - but their hopes are not high.
``If the political will to move ahead doesn't exist in the region, we are not going to be able to create that political will from outside the region,'' said Secretary of State James Baker III on Tuesday.
The US will stop its current efforts to broker peace talks unless the new government of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir agrees to proceed without delay, Secretary Baker said. In a remark that revealed the Bush administration's growing impatience with the stalemate, Baker had this message for Mr. Shamir: ``The [White House] phone number is 202-456-1414. When you're serious about this, call us.''
Perhaps Baker sounded so peeved because success seemed near only a few months ago.
In February, it appeared that an historic Israeli-Palestinian dialogue was about to begin. But Israel's Likud-Labor coalition government could not quite agree on the last step: a complicated, US-backed formula for determining which Palestinians could take part in talks. The coalition collapsed over the issue, and out of the rubble a Likud-led right-wing coalition has emerged - the most conservative in Israeli history.
Shamir further hardened the new government's stance Wednesday by insisting that Palestinian negotiators accept Israel's idea of autonomy for the occupied territories before peace talks can begin. The whole idea for talks, leading to Palestinian elections, leading to more talks, was put forward by Shamir in the first place. But without Labor Party partners to placate, Shamir is even less likely to make the concessions necessary to implement this plan, US officials say.
The tensions in US-Israeli relations could be heightened further in coming weeks, as discussions begin on implementing legislation granting Israel $400 million in housing guarantees to help settle Soviet Jews.
In the past, Israel has made a standard pledge to use such money only in lands it occupied before the 1967 war. But under the new government, guidelines advocate expanding Jewish settlements in the occupied territories. US officials decline to say whether the US will ask for any further promises in exchange for the latest installment of housing money.
Meanwhile, US relations with the Palestinians are getting worse. A May 30 attack on an Israeli beach by two boatloads of guerrillas from a radical faction of the PLO may have been thwarted, but it succeeded in threatening the US-PLO dialogue.
The US began talking to the PLO in 1988, after Chairman Yasser Arafat publicly renounced terrorism. President Bush has called on Mr. Arafat to condemn the beach attack as terrorism in no uncertain terms, and to discipline Abul Abbas, the leader of the radical faction. Arafat has replied only with a general terrorism condemnation, and says he does not have the authority to discipline Abbas.
As of this writing, Bush has yet to cut off the US-PLO dialogue. Clearly the administration is playing for time. A serious breach with the Palestinians could end any hope of a peace process getting started, even if Shamir suddenly becomes amenable. It could weaken Arafat, to the benefit of such firebreathers as Abbas.
``They understand that there will be some negative consequences to a rupture,'' says William Quandt, a Middle East specialist at the Brookings Institution. ``A complete breach would simply add fuel to the extremism growing in the region.''
A break may be inevitable, says Mr. Quandt, but it could also be a suspension of direct contacts that allows continued dialogue through third parties.
Much is going on behind the scenes. Britain, France, and several other US allies have conveyed their belief that the US should not suspend or end its PLO relationship. Mr. Bush has spoken with President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt in recent days in an effort to work out some sort of compromise. Leaks carefully calculated to pressure the PLO have indicated that a suspension of relations is imminent.
The importance of the decision to the Middle East is such that administration officials say they won't set any deadlines for making it. But some members of Congress are growing restive, saying that delay gives the appearance that the White House is trying to find a way to let the PLO off the hook, and lessens US credibility with the Shamir government.
``It's very difficult to see how one could sit down and attempt to negotiate, quote, `peace', with an organization that is still, in my opinion, involving itself in terrorist acts,'' said Sen. Connie Mack III (R) of Florida, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.