JAMES BAKER has given Middle East peacemaking an honest effort, in line with commitments made to Arab allies in the Gulf war. But Mr. Baker's efforts have shown that neither those allies - notably Syria and Saudi Arabia - nor Israel are ready to forge the needed compromises. The opportunities supposedly opened by the war against Iraq have proven elusive. The old political realities, so tightly bound to the Arab-Israeli conflict, appear as solid as ever.
Syria won't move ahead without some assurance that any conference will exert international pressures on Israel to yield up the Golan Heights. Israel won't budge unless there's some assurance it won't immediately be assailed by ``land for peace.''
The reported stumbling blocks - United Nations participation in peace talks and whether the conference would be a one-shot affair or be reconvened - can certainly be finessed. More worrying, the very prospect of talks sends tremors through ideologically rigid regimes in Israel and Syria.
If US peace brokering is to succeed, the tremors may have to be intensified. President Bush may have to throw his own substantial diplomatic weight into the process, like Jimmy Carter in the late '70s. Much discussed US leverage - security assistance for Saudi Arabia, economic ties for Syria, immigrant resettlement aid for Israel - may have to be brandished a bit.
The difference between the late '70s and now, of course, is that the sides then were ready to take risks - as exemplified by Sadat's visit to Jerusalem in 1977.
Peace isn't easily made between parties that distrust peace. In this regard, however, it's important to remember that governments don't necessarily reflect the desires of peoples. Among Israelis and Palestinians, for example, are many who recognize that a better future must include peace built on mutual compromise and respect.
The cycles of violence - whether knifings by radicalized Arabs or seizures of land by Israeli authorities - would discard this human yearning. Would-be peacemakers should build on it, while emphasizing that the status quo promises only a replay of war and terror.