After two months of shuttle diplomacy around the Middle East, Secretary of State James Baker returned home this week with little to show for his efforts at finding a formula for regional peace talks. The result, while disappointing, was not entirely unexpected. But the lack of significant progress need not be grounds for despair.
Change, if it comes, is going to be very slow. It's one thing for the United States to sit on the sidelines and urge everybody to get together and talk. It's quite another for the participants, who fear for their very survival, to make major concessions.In the aftermath of the Persian Gulf war's success, many people thought the political climate had changed enough to finally resolve the 43-year-old Arab-Israeli standoff and the vexing question of a Palestinian homeland.
As it turns out, that optimism underestimated the depth of hostility and fear that has kept the region boiling over since 1948. Baker's repeated trips made it clear that all sides remain obdurate, although there have been small changes in position. Each small step is a reason to push for more movement.
In his latest six-day trip, Baker did obtain minor concessions from Saudi Arabia and five other lesser Persian Gulf states. They agreed to sit at the same table as Israel, but only to discuss "fringe" issues such as water resources. That amounts to progress of a sort but hardly makes a dent in the basic problem. The secretary of state has been unable to persuade either Israel or Syria to agree to any formula for a peace conference.
Syria - an increasingly powerful player in the Middle East and one that harbors a deep hatred for Israel - insists that any peace talks be held under the auspices of the United Nations.
Israel, which has been repeatedly condemned by the U.N. over the years, fears it will fare poorly if the international organization is running the talks. It also fears that Arab states could hide behind the U.N. as a way of avoiding face-to-face talks with Israel.
However, Israel appears to have softened its hard-line position regarding Palestinian representation at any conference, although Baker was not divulging any details, saying it was a "sensitive" issue.
All of these problems - as difficult as they are to resolve - are merely preliminaries. Any agreement would simply be an agreement to finally sit down and talk to each other. While that would be a breakthrough, such talks would not guarantee that any differences would be resolved.
The question of the occupied territories, Israeli settlements on the West Bank, the Golan Heights, Israeli military security, and Arab claims to parts of Jerusalem are all enormously difficult problems in themselves.
Baker's trip had been described as a make-or-break, last-ditch effort. It must not be seen as that. Another trip, and another, and still another are justified if each one produces even a little movement.
The Arab-Israeli conflict has lasted more than four decades. It undoubtedly is going to take more than the four months since the end of the Persian Gulf war to bring a measure of peace to a historically turbulent and troubled region. The United States must keep trying.