SECRETARY of State James Baker III heads for the Middle East this week with no illusions about the prospects for progress on one of the lead items on his agenda - the Arab-Israeli conflict. His experience a year ago trying to inch along negotiations leading toward elections for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza was a crash course in diplomatic frustration. Some authorities on Middle Eastern politics believe the Gulf war has so reshuffled relationships in the region that the peace process may get a fresh start. Certainly the always fragile structure of Arab unity, built primarily around opposition to Israel, has been shattered by the war. There is speculation that some of the Arab partners in the US-led coalition against Iraq may be open to reassessing their stance toward Israel. Talks on arms limitation in the region could offer one forum for contact, at least, between Israel and its Arab neighbors.
Syria, with its desire to regain territory lost in 1967, could be the most likely prospect for serious peace negotiations. Progress toward ending the state of hostility on Israel's northern frontier could conceivably encourage efforts to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians.
For now, leverage is being readied on all sides of the issue. The Arabs in the Gulf coalition can say they greatly aided American purposes by being faithful partners in liberating Kuwait, and now they'd like to see Washington apply some pressures on Israel. The US can say the threat posed by Saddam Hussein would never have been removed if it hadn't been willing to risk its soldiers in the Gulf. And Israel won credit by holding off a military response to Iraqi Scud attacks.
No one can say how Middle East politics will flow in the months ahead, and the region has a way of trampling optimism. But possibilities exist. And Secretary Baker, a man with an undisputed talent for spotting bargaining openings, should have an interesting trip.