THE window of opportunity for peace in the Middle East is proving hard to open. Relationships and obligations formed during the Gulf war were supposed to have made negotiations between Israelis and Arabs more likely. Instead, the positions staked out before the war appear set as ever. US Secretary of State James Baker found few hints of compromise as he toured the region's capitals again last week. But Middle East peacemaking has never been easy. The idea of a regional conference - or "meeting," to use the term preferred by Israel's government - remains the best hope for reviving the peace process. Such a gathering would go a little distance toward the international conference favored by Arab states, while its structure would have safeguards to ease Israeli concerns about being ganged up on.
In trying to tack together a framework for the conference, however, Secretary Baker ran into both sides' preoccupation with ultimate outcomes. The Arabs insist that any meeting lead to implementation of the land-for-peace formula embodied in United Nations resolutions.
Israel's government, by contrast, wants a "purely ceremonial" meeting that would quickly devolve into one-on-one negotiations. Any hint of "land for peace" sends tremors through the coalition of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, with threats of defection from right-wingers.
So what next? Mr. Baker is back in Washington, conferring with President Bush. They have a few positive elements to build on: agreement by Egypt and the Soviets to take part in a conference and a new US dialogue with Palestinian representatives. The next step may be a tougher line from Washington with both Arabs and Israelis.
Saudi Arabia, for example, should be urged to reconsider its refusal to take part in regional peacemaking. The Saudis are aware, doubtless, that with Saddam Hussein still in power the need for US security assistance remains strong.
Sen. Bob Dole (R) of Kansas is again suggesting that US aid be used as a prod to reluctant Middle Easterners. That prospect, politically thorny as it is, shouldn't be ruled out. Israel, intent on resettling its Soviet immigrants, is counting on increased aid from Washington.
The administration should make it clear this leverage will be used if necessary. Washington's goal, after all, is simply to bring the parties together to begin talking - a development that could prove in the interest of everyone.