DO the parties to a prospective peace agreement in the Middle East really want to settle their long-running disputes, or do they simply want to avoid being saddled with the blame when the current round of peacemaking fails? It's a question that has to be asked as supporters of a regional peace conference - which remains a reasonable way of at least getting the sides to talk to each other - try to keep that idea from wilting. Consider the brief dalliance between Jordan and Israel early this week.
King Hussein's statements to a French interviewer about the need for "face-to-face" talks between Arabs and Israelis brought an offer from Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy to roll out the red carpet for the king. But the Jordanian ruler's aides quickly let it be known that Hussein was referring only to participation in a regional gathering.
Officials in Israel knew all along that the cautious monarch wasn't about to undertake unilateral peacemaking. Still, it was a chance for the Shamir government to proclaim its support for peacemaking - at least along the one-on-one lines it favors.
No one wants to be branded "obstructionist." But Israel may have trouble avoiding that brand if President Bush's urgings to give a little on matters like a nominal UN presence at the regional conference are rejected. Israel's intensified raids on southern Lebanon do little to brighten the outlook for peace either.
Mr. Bush was correct to personally write regional leaders in an effort to sustain the conference idea. To keep that idea from succumbing to Middle East politics as usual - as played both in the region and in Washington - he may have to increase his own involvement instead of relying on further shuttling by Secretary Baker.
For instance, the US could announce it will host a "summit" of regional leaders, setting out the agenda and the consequences of not participating. That would put the onus even more directly on the Middle Eastern parties themselves.