WARREN CHRISTOPHER is not a man who likes to raise undue expectations in advance of his diplomatic sorties.
But as the US secretary of state prepared to set off on Sunday for a tour of the Middle East, he sounded positively bored by the prospect. ``A rather routine trip,'' he said flatly of his week-long journey. And State Department spokesman Mike McCurry was equally keen to dampen any hopes of a breakthrough in Middle East peace efforts.
``Just ... trying to grind out a few more inches along the way,'' was how he put it.
Nor do these comments constitute a diplomatic smoke screen behind which dramatic developments are in the works, according to observers here. For there are no signs that in the area where Mr. Christopher can make the most impact - Israeli-Syrian peace talks -
either side is ready to make the critical decisions that are needed.
Christopher has a number of pieces of side business to conduct next week: He is to meet Jordan's King Hussein in London in the wake of the king's threat to boycott the next round of peace negotiations with Israel unless the United Nations ends offshore searches of ships bound for Aqaba, Jordan, hunting for goods possibly destined for Iraq.
Christopher will also visit Saudi Arabia and Egypt, where Israeli and Palestinian negotiators are close to agreement on limited Palestinian autonomy in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank town of Jericho.
But Israel's talks with the Palestine Liberation Organization are proceeding under their own momentum. The US envoy's focus will be on Israel's talks with Syria, which have been stalled for the better part of a year.
The sticking point is familiar: Syria, while demanding ``land for peace,'' is refusing to spell out what it means by the peace it would offer in return for the Golan Heights. Israel is refusing to say how far it would withdraw from the Heights until Syria explains what peace would look like.
``In recent months, though, Israel has gone much further than before in hinting'' that it would meet Syria's demand for a complete withdrawal, says Dore Gold, a strategic analyst at Tel Aviv University's Jaffee Center.
Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin warned recently of the ``painful decision'' on the Golan that lay ahead, adding that ``deep'' withdrawal would be necessary. Senior military officers have begun to suggest that Israel could ensure its security even without control over the Golan.
AN Army position paper, elements of which were leaked to the press this week, has added fuel to the speculation about Israel's intentions. It is understood to have proposed a pullback from about two-thirds of the Golan Heights, which Mr. Rabin said later would not be enough to win Syrian approval.
``The Army would prefer [a line] farther eastward than political reality permits,'' he told a Knesset (parliament) committee last Tuesday, according to a participant.
Syrian reaction to the Israeli leaks was blunt. ``Syria will not accept any other wording'' than a pledge to withdraw fully from the Golan Heights, the ruling Baath Party daily Al-Baath said on Monday.
``So far the Syrians won't reveal their cards on anything until Israel commits itself to full withdrawal,'' Dr. Gold says. ``Christopher has to try to flush them out, to see if a deal is really feasible.''
``We all know what the Syrians want to hear and what the Israelis want to hear,'' says Yossi Olmert, a Syria-watcher who participated with other Israelis in secret meetings last year with Syrian academics. ``It's just a matter of a political decision by [Syrian president Hafez] al-Assad and Rabin.''
If Christopher is hoping to hear from the Israeli government just how far it is prepared to withdraw from the Golan, he is likely to be disappointed.
``We have not yet reached the stage of committing to a particular degree of withdrawal,'' a senior Israeli official said yesterday.
For the time being, Rabin is too preoccupied with his negotiations with the Palestinians, analysts say. ``Rabin has always been a believer in one-front diplomacy,'' Gold says. ``Only when he has finished with Gaza and Jericho will he turn to the Golan.''
And Washington seems happy to let Rabin get on with it. Certainly there have been no signs of American pressure since President Clinton left Mr. Assad with the impression that he would apply such pressure, after their summit in Geneva last January.
``The Syrians are not sure they can go on with the process if the Americans are not more actively involved,'' Dr. Olmert warns. ``Instead of reaping the fruits of Geneva, Christopher will just be clarifying the American position.''