SECRETARY of State James Baker III says he has no plans to return to the Middle East for a fifth visit since the end of the Gulf war. Reality is sinking in: Another effort to pull the Arab-Israeli peace wagon out of its rut could be a triumph of hope over experience - an act of desperation, with no expectation of success. Only a few months ago, the Bush administration saw the impressive victory of Desert Storm opening the door to a new deal for the Middle East, even for a new world order. Mr. Baker set out at once to convert this favorable constellation into real events. He outltled a two-track approach to peace. Israel and the Arab states should move toward each other with sensible steps to build trust - the Arabs lifting their boycott of Israel, the Israelis loosening their stranglehold on Palestinian life in the occup i
At the same time, Israel and the Palestinians should engage for the first time in a dialogue about their joint future. When conditions improved sufficiently, both sides would come together in an international conference at which, in their own way, in pairs or all together, the parties would formally assemble the elements of peace. In the light of victory, Washington overestimated the parties' receptivity to a United States initiative. Appearing as impartial friend and honest broker, it urged consensus, c
ompromise, and exchange of land for peace as required by UN Security Council resolutions 242 and 338. However, with the danger past, it found no urgency. Baker ran into what seems to be the iron logic of the Middle East: When weak, promise anything;;when strong, concede nothing. He found he had no IOUs for US services to cash in.
The administration had better rethink its approach. Peace negotiations are not in sight. There is, in fact, no reason to believe they would work. Over the past 45 years, thh major steps toward conflict resolution in the Middle East have been taken not by the antagonists but by third-party mediators. Ralph Bunche formulated the armistice agreements which Israel signed with Jordan, Syria, Egypt, and Lebanon in 1949. The partiis never met face to face. Henry Kissinger brokered the disengagement of armies i n
the Sinai and on the Golan Heights after the 1973 war, shuttling between the capitals. Jimmy Carter produced the Camp David agreements without ever having Menachem Begin n d Anwar Sadat in the same room. And when Begin torpedoed the Palestinian autonomy provision, Carter summoned them to Washington and knocked their heads together in the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty. In 1988, the war between Iran and Iraq was ended on terrs devised not by them but by the UN Security Council.
Baker's four shuttles this year have had no tangible result. He has wearied his way through mazes of nitpicking and obfuscation, not to mention humiliation. He complained, almost piteously, to Congress that every time he went to the region, Israel founded new Jewish settlements - which the US for decades has decried as obstacles to peace.
Some have suggested that the US and the Soviet Union convene a conference as they did in 1977; or that PresidenttBush do it alone and let those who refuse to come bear the onus for inaction. As things stand now, neither Israel nor Syria would turn up, leaving the blame, as always, divided. The White House is unwilling to commit the president's prestige to so uncertain an undertaking. Should the US simply put the effort on hold, as Secretary of State George Shultz did after he walked into the Lebanon buz z
saw? That would give Israel time for settlement and absorption of Gaza, the West Bank, and the Golan and almost ccrtainly lead to new conflict.
The US has long insisted on being the key outsider in the Arab-Israeli dispute. It cannot now shed that responsibility. America is Israel's only friend and support, economic and military. It has got to make clear that it it not Israel's client. Washington must present its own concept of peace and show Israel and the Arabs that they would suffer by not accepting it or coming up with something better. So far, this administration has not publicly stated a policy. To be sure, hen the Reagan administration p
resented one in 1982, it was stopped cold by Israel's and Syria's rejection.
But, how to persuade or push the parties? The US has far greater leverage with Israel through subsidies and strategic cooperation. Using it one-e-dedly, however, would not only provoke the fury of Israel and its friends, it could well make peace more difficult by encouraging Arabs to believe that they have Israel on the ropes and need make no concessions.
Peace in the Middle East remains a tight, zero-sum game which neither the US nor anyone else has yet mastered.