WASHINGTON — Secretary of State James A. Baker III knew instinctively that the Arab-Israeli dispute was a quagmire. For the first 2 1/2 years of his tenure, Baker adamantly resisted every suggestion that he should visit the region because he realized that the conflict regularly chews up and spits out well-meaning mediators.
"If it hadn't been for the Gulf War, he might never have gone," a senior State Department official confides. "He has never had any illusions about this."
But now, here he is, waist-deep in the swamp, going over all the same issues that have frustrated secretaries of state for years. Since the war against Iraq ended, Baker has visited the Middle East four times in a so-far fruitless attempt to bring Israel and its Arab antagonists to the negotiating table.
Although Baker can, in his more optimistic moments, point to a growing number of procedural issues on which Israel and the Arab states now seem to agree, he realizes that the remaining obstacles are more than enough to scuttle his plan for a regional peace conference. The conference, co-sponsored by Washington and Moscow, would be intended to launch face-to-face talks among the parties.
And he privately admits to a fear of being "Shultzed"--drawn by the Arabs and the Israelis into endlessly wandering across the region, obtaining a small concession here and a nuance there without ever settling anything.
Former Secretary of State George P. Shultz spent much of his time in office trying to mediate the dispute. For a time, he liked to boast: "Nobody has said 'no.' " But in the end, nobody had said "yes," either.
Sometimes, American mediators register stunning success. The last time was at the Camp David conference in 1978, which cleared the way for the Israel-Egypt peace treaty. President Jimmy Carter brought Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to the presidential retreat in the Maryland mountains and, in effect, held them prisoner until they reached agreement.
But both before and after Camp David, U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East has been numbingly repetitious.
In an endless chicken-and-egg routine, American mediators swing between an emphasis on procedure and an emphasis on substance. At present, Baker is in the procedure mode, trying to push Israel, Syria, Jordan and the Palestinians into agreement on the arrangements for a peace conference. He is not even trying to address the substance of the Arab-Israeli dispute, hoping that once the longtime antagonists come face to face, they will begin to solve their own problems.
But, so far, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Syrian President Hafez Assad--by far the most important players in the effort--seem to be in no hurry to complete the procedural arrangements. There is a growing suspicion at the State Department that neither man wants to get into a process that he may be unable to control. Both Shamir and Assad seem to have concluded that they have more to lose than to gain from unstructured, no-holds-barred talks.
If he is like his predecessors, Baker may soon conclude that it is pointless to spend all his time talking about procedure when the parties to the dispute are concerned about substance. Then, he may start trying to narrow substantive differences. Shultz tried both approaches without reaching full agreement on either one of them.
The problem, one Baker associate maintains, is that Americans and Middle Easterners do not have the same concept of time.
"You have an assignment, and your goal is to get it done," this official says. "In the Middle East, they all say they want peace, but there is no urgency. We say, 'Let's make a decision,' but they say 'Give us some time to think about it.' "
Middle Eastern leaders such as Shamir, Assad, King Hussein of Jordan and President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt have seen U.S. Presidents and secretaries of state come and go. And in a region where people still talk about the Crusades as though they ended a couple of years ago, the long view may be appropriate.
"If you measure the Baker trips against the heady optimism of March, 1991, it is inevitable that one will tend toward cynicism and pessimism," says Geoffrey Kemp, a former National Security Council expert on the Middle East during the Ronald Reagan Administration. "But if you measure the Baker dialogue and the positions of the parties against the backdrop of 1949, there has been a sea change in attitudes.
"Looked at from the long haul, there is some ground for optimism," adds Kemp, now an associate of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "More and more Arab countries are coming to recognize the need for a dialogue with Israel. Looked at in this context, the differences that separate the parties are still significant but not nearly as insurmountable as they were in the past. That doesn't mean that peace is at hand or there has been a breakthrough. But by plowing the same ground against a different background, you do make some progress."
Richard W. Murphy, a key Middle East negotiator as assistant secretary of state during the Reagan presidency, says Baker has achieved goals that eluded the previous Administration.
"The cooperation with the Soviets was not developed when I was on the job," Murphy said. "Those were the years when we were reflagging Kuwaiti tankers (in part) to keep the Soviets out of the Gulf. Now, Baker is coordinating his effort with (Soviet Foreign Minister Alexander A.) Bessmertnykh."
But Murphy, now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, adds: "There are some points that obviously haven't been overcome. Some of them are golden oldies. Both sides still have to prove their seriousness about getting into negotiations."