President Bush, pledging U.S. help in seeking a Mideast settlement, described on Friday the situation in the troubled region as marginally improved.

Referring to a plan by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir to hold elections among Palestinian Arabs living under Israeli control in the West Bank and Gaza, the president said:"In the Middle East, a little step sometimes can be fruitful. I think the climate is better than it has been."

Bush, meeting with reporters at the White House, said in response to a question that it was too early for him to consider traveling to the region to try to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict.

"If I personally can be helpful, I am going to do it," Bush said.

But, he added, "it is not a time when a lot of high-visibility missions on the part of the president can be helpful in the process."

As for the proposed elections, which Shamir suggested as a way to select Arab delegates to meet with his goverment, Bush said:

"We haven't fully resolved exactly who's going to have a role; that's a matter to be determined between the parties . . . The PLO has people living on the West Bank. . . . We want to see elections that are free and fair."

Shamir's intent is to avoid PLO participation in selecting Arab representatives by having Israeli authorities run the selection process.

Shamir presented his proposal to Bush on Thursday. At a news conference, the prime minister ruled out having international observers on hand for the voting. Still, Secrertary of State James A. Baker III said he was encouraged about Mideast prospects.

"I think the important thing is that his proposal comes with something that can be worked with," Baker said Thursday. "It offers us an opportunity to perhaps move the peace process forward. And I think that's encouraging."

Shamir, who was meeting today with members of Congress, said Israelis and Palestinians would oversee the balloting he intends to hold on the West Bank and in Gaza. "We do not think there is a need of international supervision," he said. "Israel has a long tradition of democracy and decent and honest elections."