AS political confusion in Iraq and Kuwait clouds its achievements in the Gulf, the Bush administration is probing for a breakthrough on another Middle Eastern front. Following consultations with visiting Middle Eastern diplomats, United States officials now are weighing the possibility of convening a conference that would pave the way to direct negotiations between Israel and its Arab neighbors. One main objective would be resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Administration sources insist that no decisions have been made or conference plans laid. But with the momentum created by the Gulf war dissipating and with President Bush slated, though not yet scheduled, to travel to the Middle East, pressure to translate military success into political gains in the area is mounting.
"Bush's trip to the region will be a clear test of whether there's any substance to his intentions to move forward," says Helena Cobban, a scholar in residence at the Foundation for Middle East Peace in Washington.
The state of US planning on the peace process remains a closely held secret as Mr. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker III attempt to determine which options are workable. "Baker and his people are throwing out ideas and seeing who will catch them," says one West European diplomat who speculates that reports of the conference proposal were leaked by senior State Department officials.
According to the reports, direct talks would be launched under joint US and Soviet auspices and would probably include Israel, Syria, Egypt, and Palestinian representatives, plus the six Arab Gulf states. Talks could be launched in the Middle East whenever Bush decides to go. Alternatively, Bush could issue invitations for a later conference in Washington.
The Gulf war may have boosted peace prospects by creating a temporary deference to US leadership. That could be a decisive factor in convincing Arab states to drop their insistence on including the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council in an international conference.
But the legacy of the war cuts both ways. With Iraqi power destroyed and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) discredited, Israel will have less incentive to make make sacrifices to get talks started.
Israeli officials say any talk of negotiations is premature until Arab states send a clear signal that attitudes toward the Jewish state have changed. Short of outright recognition, decisions to end a 40-year boycott and state of war against Israel would be taken as a sign of serious intent, one Israeli diplomat comments.
"The right atmosphere has to be established first, before you worry about the details of negotiations," says the diplomat.
Baker has urged confidence-building measures on Israel as well, including a relaxation of the occupation which has placed 1.5 million Palestinians under strict, sometimes brutal rule. But in response to a series of recent attacks by Palestinians on Jews in Israel, Israel has approved even stronger sanctions, including more house demolitions and deportation of Palestinian militants.
Bush spoke forcefully to Congress last month about the need to put an end to the conflict. The speech prompted hopes in some quarters that he would play a more active role in brokering peace talks. But most of the president's advisers are apostles of the "ripeness" theory - that there is little the US can do until the parties to the conflict are ready to make concessions for peace. They advise the more passive policy of encouraging confidence-building measures.
Just how far the president is willing to go will ultimately depend on domestic political considerations. One view is that it would be unwise for Bush to invest the political capital earned during the Gulf war in a high-risk venture that, if it necessitates pressure on Israel, could provoke the wrath of the sizable pro-Israeli lobby in Congress.
The alternative view is that conditions in the Middle East could have bearing on Bush's chances for reelection in 1992.
If the glow of victory is dimmed by political chaos in the region, voters may ask what the US military venture in the Gulf achieved, say proponents of greater presidential activism. The only good answer will be a concrete political achievement.
"There's a risk that the achievements of Kuwait will be offset by the horrors in the aftermath, so the president needs a success," says Ms. Cobban, author of a forthcoming book on Israeli-Syrian relations. "There's an incentive for him to achieve something on Arab-Israeli peacemaking."
Even if Bush takes a more activist role, at least two hurdles stand in the way of negotiations.
One is conflicting interpretations of two UN resolutions long regarded as the basic blueprint for peace.
Israel's Likud government says the "land for peace" formula prescribed in Resolutions 242 and 338 applies only to the Sinai Peninsula, ceded by Israel to Egypt in 1979. Any broader construction that includes the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Golan Heights will be taken as a "precondition" that will need to be dropped before peace talks can begin, Israeli sources say.
Arabs hold to position
Arab officials respond that unless Israel adopts the universally accepted broader definition of 242 and 338 there will be no reason to negotiate.
"The No. 1 point of contention with Israel is land," says one Arab diplomat in Washington. "If Israel wants to discuss peace without discussing territory, none of the Arab states has any interest in going to a conference."
A second hurdle is the problem of how Palestinians are to be represented at future peace talks.
West Bank and Gaza Palestinians linked to the PLO are unacceptable to Israel. But unless they loosely represent the PLO, no Palestinian negotiators will be acceptable to their own constituents.
One solution might be to turn to Jordan's King Hussein to form a Jordanian-Palestinian delegation committed to an eventual Jordan-West Bank confederation.