TWO years and one war later, the Bush administration is back where it started: cautiously peddling a Middle East peace plan that neither Arabs nor Israelis are willing to define or reject. During his first year as secretary of state, James Baker III worked long hours to implement an Israeli plan calling for talks on the future of the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. The effort collapsed over a procedural dispute.
Last week, Mr. Baker was at it again. On a four-nation Middle East tour he won qualified backing for a plan to convene a regional conference to launch direct Arab-Israeli peace talks. But now, as before, intransigence reigns. Despite warm words of support for the conference idea from Israel and its Arab adversaries, Baker could fail again to get them past issues of format.
``We have the word `meeting' and that's all; it was hardly worth the jet fuel,'' says a US official summarizing the fruits of Baker's second trip to the region within a month. ``We're dealing in nouns. But it's the adjectives - the qualifiers - that cause things to break down.''
The idea of a one-time regional conference, or meeting, to open negotiations is a compromise between Arab states, which have sought a full international conference, and Israel, which has favored direct negotiations to resolve Arab-Israeli disputes, including the Palestinian issue.
The plan was given a boost when Egyptian leaders told Baker in Cairo that they were prepared to settle for sponsorship by the US and Soviet Union in lieu of all five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. Syria also appears to have dropped its demand for a full international conference.
But even this bare definition of how to proceed is mired in controversy.
One disagreement concerns the structure of the negotiations.
Israel wants bilateral negotiations with the Arab states and Palestinian representatives, with the US-Soviet sponsored ``conference,'' or umbrella, to be temporary and strictly ceremonial. The Arab states insist on negotiating with Israel collectively, with the conference to have permanent standing so that the superpowers can be on hand to help settle intractable disputes.
The two sides are also divided on a key issue of substance.
Arab states say two UN resolutions calling on Israel to exchange land for peace apply to all territory captured during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Israel says the resolutions apply only to the Sinai Peninsula, relinquished to Egypt under the 1979 Camp David peace treaty, and not to the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Golan Heights.
Another major sticking point is the issue that triggered the collapse of US mediation efforts last year - namely, how Palestinians are to be represented at peace talks. The main issue here is Israel's rejection of Palestinians from East Jerusalem, which Israel annexed in 1967 but which Palestinians consider part of the occupied West Bank.
Neither Israel nor the Arab states seem prone to agree to more than token concessions to advance the peace process. But fearful of bearing the onus of dousing hopes for a new postwar order in the Middle East, they are also unlikely to disagree outright to Baker's proposal.
Analysts say that leaves Baker right where he was two years ago: faced with the thankless, perhaps quixotic task of securing procedural compromises just to get a peace process started. State Department officials say yet another visit to the region for that purpose may be scheduled soon.
``The problem is that Baker's doing what he did before,'' says the US official. ``We haven't budged an inch on the basic issues. So we focus on process, which becomes a substitute for principle.''
Despite the administration's clear interest in resolving the Arab-Israeli dispute, few diplomatic analysts claim to know for sure whether, in his heart, Baker is deeply committed to a process he thinks can work or merely going through the motions of an exercise he knows is doomed to failure because of the intransigence of the parties involved.
Whatever the case, whether peace prospects are kept alive now largely depends on two other figures: President Bush and Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.
A presidential nudge
Mr. Bush has hung back during the preliminaries, deferring travel plans to the region until prospects for a breakthrough are ripe. But the current peace initiative is as likely to fail as the last one, many diplomatic analysts warn, unless Bush puts his considerable prestige on the line to exact the concessions needed to get a serious diplomatic process started.
In turn, it may take Bush's personal involvement to convince Shamir, as a minimum, to call a halt to the construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank that administration officials feel has seriously damaged chances for improving the atmosphere for negotiations.
``If Shamir knows the president is seriously involved, he'll be under pressure,'' says an Arab diplomat in Washington. ``But if the US is looking for an excuse to disengage, Shamir will play on that. If the President gets personally involved in the process, something dramatic could happen.''
To win public backing for conciliatory gestures, Shamir will merely need to use the same persuasive skills he demonstrated when he convinced a doubting Israeli public that restraint was called for after Iraqi Scud missiles plowed into Tel Aviv neighborhoods during the Gulf war.
``After Shamir said restraint was good, a whole military doctrine - that retaliation should be immediate and in double doses - was temporarily reversed,'' says an Arab diplomat. ``He can do the same to advance the peace process.''