Baker Spins Fragile Diplomatic Web in Mideast Peace Quest

US secretary of state tries to induce longtime adversaries to make gestures of accommodation and help build trust

THE Middle East peace process has once again lurched into motion - but at a pace that appears all the slower after the swift-moving events of the Gulf war. A new attitude of pragmatism among leading Arab states seems the chief reason for hope that they and Israel will settle their differences.

But in his swing through the region last week US Secretary of State James Baker III found neither Arabs nor Israelis ready to take any concrete steps toward conciliation. (Baker's trip to Moscow, Page 5.)

Building peace is more difficult than making war, particularly in this most complex of geopolitical regions. Secretary Baker said as much at the end of his trip, replying to a question about apparent lack of progress by saying "you have to crawl before you walk, and you have to walk before you can run."

Still, if diplomacy is to take advantage of any opportunities provided by the defeat of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to make progress on other tough regional issues, it may have to pick up speed.

"War provides a window for diplomacy," says Ray Tanter, a University of Michigan professor and former National Security Council official, but "the window closes very rapidly."

In the recent past, United States efforts to get Israel and its Arab adversaries talking have foundered on the difficulties of launching dialogue about substantive problems.

This time, the US plan seems to be to step back a little bit and build on whatever goodwill the Gulf war effort may have engendered by urging both sides to make small gestures of accommodation which could help build trust.

After his swing through the capitals of Arab members of the anti-Iraq coalition, Secretary Baker claimed he had heard "new thinking" which represented progress in attitudes toward the intractable Arab-Israeli-Palestinian standoff. What was new, in Baker's view, seemed not to be details, but attitude.

After the secretary of state visited with Syria's Hafez al-Assad, for instance, he and other administration officials insisted that they had heard a genuine desire for a settled peace in the region, not just the lack-of-war standoff that currently exists. Syrian officials said little that would back this up, but if it is true it would be significant: With the destruction of Iraqi power, Syria now is the chief military counterweight to Israel in the region.

The US position apparently is that it is now up to Israel to respond to this Arab new thinking. In Jerusalem, Baker presented a list of trust-building moves Israel could make, including ending the detention of Palestinians without trial, stopping the construction of settlements in the occupied territories, and, most important, issuing a declaration that Israel would not rule out someday exchanging land for peace.

Baker's manner in Israel was mild, stating US desires without obvious pressure. That might well change in coming weeks, as the US moves to capitalize on the Middle East window of opportunity.

"There has got to be some indication on Israel's part of a serious willingness to negotiate territory for peace," says Hermann Eilts, a former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia who now heads Boston University's Center for International Relations. "In part, this depends on imaginative US diplomacy. The US should press Israel on this one."

For Israel's conservative Likud government to indicate willingness to give up any part of the occupied West Bank or Golan Heights would be extremely difficult, harder in political terms than President Bush's breaking his vow not to raise taxes. Yet some analysts maintain it can be done.

"If there is a genuine offer of peace from the Arab side, [Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak] Shamir is capable of delivering a territorial deal on the Golan Heights and an interim deal for Palestinian self-government which leaves open the final status of the territories," wrote Martin Indyk of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in a recent report on the peace process.

One pitfall the US may have to look out for in the Middle East is focusing too much on the Arab-Israeli question at the expense of security for the Gulf region in the wake of the war. Already, cracks are appearing in the Bush administration's approach to the postwar Gulf structure, maintains Dr. Tanter of the University of Michigan.

Though lip service has been paid to the need for Middle East arms control, Arab members of the coalition are already clamoring for new conventional arms.

And there has been little real talk about revenue sharing between Arab oil-state haves and hardscrabble have-nots. Though some sort of new military coalition will undoubtedly arise, Tanter says, it appears it will be short of the Middle Eastern NATO that Secretary Baker himself once talked about.

"The administration had a better military plan than a postwar political plan," says Tanter.

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