THE Clinton administration has made clear its desire to see the Middle East peace process resume. Secretary of State Warren Christopher will leave for the Middle East Feb. 17 with this as one of his objectives. In the past few weeks, however, valuable momentum has been lost, making the task infinitely more difficult.
Nothing is more fatal to diplomacy than lost momentum. In the best of circumstances, any efforts undertaken to resolve a complex, bitter conflict face heavy odds, including factions on both sides that oppose the idea of negotiations. Such factions fear that face-to-face meetings may lead to compromises and to the denial, at least temporarily, of their maximum goal. Attempts to undermine peace talks usually can be held off if negotiators can show signs of progress. When little movement can be demonstrated
- and especially if talks are suspended for any reason and a major mediator appears to lose interest - the peace process is seriously threatened.
This premise has been demonstrated most dramatically in attempts to resolve the conflict between Israel, the Palestinians, and the neighboring Arab states. Where successes have been achieved, such as the Camp David agreements in 1978, the United States has been the major mediator. Results were possible through sustained effort by the highest officials of the US government. Hoped-for agreements on autonomy under negotiation after Camp David were not achieved, in part because the talks were suspended at th e end of President Carter's term and were not resumed by the Reagan administration.
Significant momentum was lost, and the second phase of the Camp David accords was never achieved.
In 1992, the progress made by the remarkable feat of bringing the parties together for direct talks slowed when Secretary of State James Baker III became White House chief of staff in the midst of the presidential campaign. Whatever President Bush's motives in making this change, in terms of Middle East history his decision was tragic.
Those who make such decisions maintain that no person is indispensable; if the will toward peace exists, momentum will continue. This is seldom the case. If the US secretary of state has been handling the negotiations with the heads of state in the participating countries, no surrogate is likely to have the same influence. In Mr. Baker's case, those agitating against the peace process seized upon his departure as a demonstration of a loss of interest and priority on the part of the US. Further, when the process has been as secretive and personal as it was under Baker, his successor will require time to probe the nuances and the commitments.
Since Baker withdrew from the process, events have further conspired to make resumption difficult. Little apparent progress appears to have taken place at the last talks in Washington. In Israel, the active Palestinian uprising resumed, followed by harsh countermeasures by Israel. Hamas, the Muslim fundamentalist movement in Israel, turned to violence, which resulted in the mass deportation of suspected Hamas supporters. Syria reportedly has backed away from a position of possible compromise. Agitation b y Islamic groups in Egypt make President Hosni Mubarak's efforts on behalf of peace increasingly difficult.
No one can say that these developments would not have occurred if Baker had remained at the State Department. It is clear, however, that the task of resuming the talks is infinitely more difficult than it would have been with a smooth transition from on-going discussions at the secretary-of-state level.
Baker has said that the peace process would take perhaps 10 years. He probably was correct. It probably is also correct that at this point in history no other power can play a third-party mediating role as effectively as can the US. If these premises are true, they place a burden on every US administration that determines to play a role in the Israeli-Arab peace process. In resuming the peace effort, the new US leaders must undertake a long-term commitment that includes: making a sincere effort to mainta in momentum so long as they are in office; and passing along an active, constructive negotiation to whatever team follows.