SECRETARY of State James Baker III's efforts to jump-start the Middle East peace process have suffered setbacks and are unlikely to succeed. This assessment is shared by Middle East experts of all persuasions: pro-Arab pundits, pro-Israel groups, and the so-called Peaceniks - American and Israeli Jews who say that Israel should cede all or part of the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip for peace with the Arabs.
Critics say the Bush/Baker initiative will fail in the end to bring Israel and the Palestinians closer to real peace because:
* Neither Israel nor some of the Arab parties are truly interested in peace through compromise.
* The Bush administration seems reluctant to exert real pressure on toughened and intractable parties.
* The administration has concentrated on bridging differences over procedure and not substance and has not articulated US objectives.
Therefore, experts says a Middle East peace conference, even if convened between Israel and a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation, will likely stall after the first stage because of a lack of consensus on agenda and goals.
``I think the administration will get close,'' says Martin Indyk, director of the pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy, speaking of the push for a Middle East meeting. ``But they won't get close enough and the president has to close the gap.''
``We are investing a lot in the initial step which has no further purpose than the symbolic beginning of the process without holding the hope of going any further,'' says William Quandt, a Middle East expert at Brookings Institution.
``A low-key nudging of the parties doesn't fit the history of what works in the Middle East.''
Mr. Quandt was referring to the high-profile engagement of former President Richard Nixon and his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, in the early 1970s and to the more successful efforts of former President Jimmy Carter in coaxing Israel and Egypt to sign a peace treaty in 1979, the only treaty between Israel and an Arab state.
Last Friday, as Secretary Baker began his fourth trip to the region in two months, there was hope that he might succeed in putting together a conference between Israel and its Arab enemies. Saudi Arabia and its five partners in the Gulf Cooperation Council announced they would serve as observers in the opening conference between Israel and the Palestinians.
If Baker had then convinced Syria to attend, the pressure on Israel to also consent would have been tremendous. But during meetings in Damascus Sunday, President Hafez al-Assad still insisted on a United Nations role in a continuing peace conference, positions rejected by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.
Syria's hard line, according to Middle East experts, now seriously limits the ability of Jordan, its weaker neighbor, to enter the process alone.
Baker's setbacks could fatally compromise the two tracks of the Bush administration approach, elaborated at the end of the Persian Gulf war: to start negotiations to solve the Palestinian problem; and to convene talks to end the 40-year state of war between Israel and the Arab states.
Now, only the Palestinians remain clearly on board.
But even if talks do materialize, it is unlikely they would lead anywhere. According to Mr. Indyk, Syria professes interest in a peace process in order to please the US, but it is not eager for peace with Israel.
And according to Mubarak Awad, a Palestinian American expelled from Jerusalem in 1988 for advocating civil disobedience against the Israeli occupation, ``the Israelis don't need peace.
``No Arab state can threaten Israel now,'' he says, referring to the elimination of Iraq's war machine.
``Pressure on Israel has to be economic,'' he says. ``In Israel, if you don't talk money, the Israelis will say, `In four years we'll get rid of Baker and Bush.' ''
But the US administration, says Quandt, ``seems to have concluded they have no leverage, that Congress won't allow pressure on Israel,'' despite indications that public support for Israel in the US may be declining.
In the summer of 1990, before Iraq invaded Kuwait, a poll commissioned by the B'nai B'rith Anti-Defamation League, showed support for Israel among Americans seriously eroded, according to informed sources. Postwar polls show that that support had rebounded, but Jewish leaders still fear a long-term decline.
Advocates of Israeli concessions - Israeli groups such as Peace Now - also say the Bush administration could force Prime Minister Shamir's hand by offering the Israeli people a concrete plan for concessions in the territories in return for peace treaties with the Arabs and security guarantees.
Then, says Mark Rosenblum, of Americans for Peace Now in New York, ``you would have a dynamic between the Israeli people and their government.''
Although this approach is debated, experts agree Bush must be actively engaged in mediation, articulating US positions on issues of substance.
``The debate within the administration is about presidential involvement,'' says Indyk. ``Most think that now it's too risky for the president to be involved.''
Indyk and others urge Bush to invite the parties to a conference, a move that would apply equal pressure to all sides.
``There should be no preconditions and no agenda,'' says Quandt. ``The US can give a PS to the Israelis that the Palestine Liberation Organization won't be there. And let's see who says no.''
In the long run, Indyk says, there is cause for optimism. ``There's a desire among Israelis and Palestinians to change the status quo.''