His sights set low on mere gestures, Secretary of State James Baker arrived Friday to prod the Arabs, pressure the Israelis and probe for signs of softness in long-held animosities in the Middle East.

Directed by President Bush to listen, push, but not dictate terms, Baker was hoping to seize on the shared relief of traditional adversaries at the defeat of Saddam Hussein to breathe life into the moribund peace process.It was a tall challenge that placed Baker on ground where he and others have failed. En route from Washington, he spoke in hopeful if sometimes vague terms of low expectations.

Encouraged at how Israel and its Arab neighbors found themselves unified behind the U.S.-led stand against Iraq, he said, "I think there are some things that can be done."

But as he arrived at Riyadh Air Base, where Patriot missile batteries and AWACS airplanes stood as reminders of war, there was no clear evidence that festering problems of the region were any more ripe for diplomacy than before.

Baker scheduled meetings Friday night with top Saudi officials, including King Faud, who in August took the unprecedented step of inviting foreign troops to defend his oil-rich kingdom after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.

Saturday he meets with Sheik Jaber al-Ahmed al-Sabah, the emir of Kuwait, still ensconced in penthouse exile in the Saudi city of Taif, before flying to war-torn Kuwait City for talks with Kuwaiti leaders who have returned home to begin the massive project of recovery and reconstruction.

In a region where progress is measured in nuance and small increments, Baker said he hoped to find interest in "confidence-building measures" - short of full recognition or formal negotiations - that could inch the Arab state toward peace with Israel.

Baker, who will visit five Arab capitals and Jerusalem, likened those first steps to one used to chisel away at East-West suspicisons in Europe. If that took years, he has indicated the Middle East may be no easier a crisis to resolve.

Even more formidable obstacles loomed in grappling with the dispute at the heart of the Middle East crisis - the plight of 1.7 million Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied territories.

Though Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir has hinted at willingness to broach a dialogue with individual Arab countries, that startegy skirts the Palestinian issue on which he has shown no sign of give.